By Ben Bolch, Los Angeles Times –
SAN ANTONIO — The late-night wake-up call consisted of a singular phrase, four words that shook up a team while keeping it on its postseason course.
“I want some nasty!” coach Gregg Popovich bellowed in the San Antonio Spurs’ huddle before the fourth quarter, his team trailing by nine points in the opener of the Western Conference finals.
The Spurs quickly complied, their bodies strewn across the court in the next few minutes while taking a flurry of charges.
Manu Ginobili was particularly vicious, his heady play serving as the knockout blow in the Spurs’ come-from-behind 101-98 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday night at the AT&T Center.
The reserve guard was a study in perfection in the fourth quarter, making all three field goals and all five free throws while scoring the last 11 of his postseason-high 26 points.
“I just tried to play and attack the rim when I had the opportunity,” said Ginobili, who emphatically shook his left fist after a late layup gave San Antonio a 94-84 lead.
For Oklahoma City, there was only head shaking.
Not even Kevin Durant’s 27 points or the unexpected contributions of Derek Fisher, who made his first six shots and collected 13 points on a the court where he has long haunted the Spurs, could save Oklahoma City.
The Thunder appeared poised to hand the Spurs their first defeat of the playoffs, shrugging off bad shooting by Russell Westbrook (seven of 21) and James Harden (seven of 17) to take a 71-62 lead.
Then came a fourth quarter in which Oklahoma City surrendered 39 points.
“We did a great job defensively the first 3 ½ quarters and then it kind of got out of hand,” said Westbrook, who had 17 points and appeared to be OK after taking a hard fall in the final minutes.
The Thunder forced 14 turnovers in the first half but only three in the second, including one in the final 12 minutes. Oklahoma City also appeared out of control on offense, with Harden twice committing charging fouls and Durant and Westbrook also getting called for late offensive fouls.
“The charges we took really helped change the game,” Popovich said.
Tim Duncan logged a double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds and Tony Parker rebounded from a poor start to finish with 18 points for San Antonio, which remained unbeaten in the postseason and extended its overall winning streak to 19 games.
Reserve Tiago Splitter sparked the Spurs’ fourth-quarter rally by scoring five points and taking a charge on Harden. Back-to-back jumpers by Gary Neal and Parker pulled San Antonio into a 73-73 tie, and Parker put the Spurs ahead to stay shortly thereafter on a floating one-handed jumper.
Ginobili followed with a driving layup and the Spurs were on their way to another playoff triumph.
“That’s what he’s done for us his whole career,” Popovich said of Ginobili’s clutch play. “And it’s very important to us. Without that we have a tough time winning.”
San Antonio also played tougher defensively late in the game on Durant, with Stephen Jackson taking over the assignment from rookie Kawhi Leonard. Durant missed both shots he took in the final 12 minutes, making eight of 19 attempts overall.
It all started with a pep talk from the coach known simply as “Pop,” his words picked up by the national television broadcast.
“I talked to them about they’ve got to get a little bit uglier, get a little more nasty, play with more fiber and take it to these guys,” Popovich said.
Message received, and then some.
“We knew as a team we were not playing our best basketball in the third quarter,” Parker said.
The fourth quarter would be different.