By Ben Bolch, Los Angeles Times –
SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Nasty worked for the San Antonio Spurs.
So did cutesy.
There was Manu Ginobili midway through the third quarter Tuesday night at the AT&T Center, flipping a behind-the-back pass with his left hand. Tony Parker received the ball in the corner and spotted up for a three-pointer that gave the Spurs a 20-point lead.
It was a freewheeling moment for a precision-oriented team, and it proved equally effective.
It also served as a metaphor for San Antonio, which continued its rampage through the postseason with a 120-111 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals.
Whenever the Spurs needed a big play, one of the veteran guards complied. Sometimes both.
Parker displayed pinpoint accuracy, scoring 34 points on 16-for-21 shooting to go with eight assists. Ginobili had 20 points and four assists, not all of them as creative as his pass to Parker.
“You can get tired working as hard as they do and taking turns with it seems to work pretty well,” San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich said. “There are times when they realize who should have the ball. I don’t really tell them. They figure it out.”
The Spurs have seemingly solved their NBA counterparts, winning 10 consecutive games in the playoffs and 20 games in a row overall, including the first two games of what was expected to be a taut series with the Thunder.
Game 3 is Thursday in Oklahoma City.
The only teams to enjoy more success to start the playoffs were the 2001 and 1989 Lakers, each of whom won their first 11 games.
Two nights after they pulled out a come-from-behind victory when their coach told them to get “nasty” in the fourth quarter, the Spurs created separation by making five of their 11 three-point attempts in the third quarter.
With his team trailing by 17 points, Thunder Coach Scott Brooks ordered his players to foul notoriously poor free-throw shooter Tiago Splitter. That irritated the crowd, which encouraged Splitter with a standing ovation at one point as he made five of 10 free throws in the quarter.
“I’ve never done that before,” deadpanned Popovich, who used a similar strategy against Shaquille O’Neal in the 2008 playoffs, and in the second round this year against the Clippers, who have several suspect free-throw shooters. “I think it’s a really lousy thing to do. It’s unsportsmanlike. No, it’s a good move.”
The Thunder made a move of its own in the fourth quarter, shaving a deficit that had been as large as 22 points to six with 5 minutes 40 seconds left on two Russell Westbrook free throws.
But the Spurs scored eight of the next 10 points, including a driving layup and a jumper by Parker.
“I knew the team needed me and Tony,” said Ginobili, who scored 10 points in the fourth quarter.
Other contributors also stepped up, including rookie forward Kawhi Leonard (18 points, 10 rebounds) and veteran center Tim Duncan (11 points, 12 rebounds).
Kevin Durant (31 points), James Harden (30) and Westbrook (27) were dominant for the Thunder, though their teammates were barely a murmur with a combined 23 points.
Said Durant: “We did what we normally do, which is fight all game, and we lost.”
The Spurs now hold the NBA record for longest winning streak extended in the playoffs and have the fourth-longest stretch of sustained success in league history.
The only teams to match or exceed the Spurs’ streak were the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks (20 games), the 2007-08 Houston Rockets (22) and the 1971-72 Lakers (33). None of those streaks involved the playoffs.
“It is a great run,” Duncan said, “but we are only worried about the next two wins in this series. That is all that matters at this point and if that makes it 22 in a row, that would be great.”