Kevin Durant, reminded that his Oklahoma City Thunder had not lost a home game in these playoffs, immediately reached down with his long right arm and rapped his knuckles against the nearest available surface. No wood was available, so the polyester logoed backdrop had to do.
“Knock on something right there,” Durant said.
It just might require the power of superstition for the Thunder to continue their streak tonight against a run that’s even more impressive: the 20 consecutive games won by the San Antonio Spurs -- including 10 straight playoff games. In Game 3 of the Western Conference finals tonight, the Spurs will attempt to match the 2001 Lakers’ mark of 11 consecutive victories to start the playoffs.
Oklahoma City’s Derek Fisher was on that Lakers team, and remembers how the winning built more winning, the victories melding together to create a powerful entity.
“I just think there’s a certain trust and bond and chemistry that develops within the team that becomes unbreakable,” Fisher said. “Regardless of what situations you face, you’re up 20, down 20. Phil [Jackson] got kicked out of one of those games … no matter what you deal with, you feel strong enough to come through it.”
Now Fisher and the Thunder have to find a way to counter that. One way to beat the Spurs would be to play more like the Spurs, whom Scott Brooks called “the best passing team in basketball.” San Antonio is shredding Oklahoma City’s defense with ball movement, whipping the ball from side to side or from the paint to the perimeter faster than the Thunder players can recover.
But the Thunder aren’t a great passing team. They were last in the league in assists this season. They get their baskets by driving to the hoop or hitting pull-up jumpers. They’re not going to transform before tipoff.
A more plausible change is to adjust their lineup and give more playing time to the unit Brooks used in the fourth quarter of Game 2, when the Thunder cut what had been a 22-point Spurs lead down to six points. It featured Durant, Fisher, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka. It lacked height but had speed and scoring punch. They shot 53 percent and scored 35 points in the fourth quarter, while forcing four Spurs turnovers.
Despite that success, Brooks did not sound ready to abandon the rest of his team, particularly Kendrick Perkins, the notable absence in that lineup.
“I’m not going into the game thinking that we have to play small,” Brooks said. “I believe in what our guys do, I believe in what we’ve done to this point, got us to this level of success, because I believe in the guys. Whether I go small, whether I go big, different lineups, they all have to play well and they have to play well together.”
The Thunder are far from resigned to defeat, despite their 2-0 deficit in the series.
“We’re a resilient team,” Durant said. “We’re confident. We’ve just got to continue to play hard, play smart.”
But it might not matter if the Spurs keep doing things their way. The Spurs don’t have to change a thing. Their task is to maintain their offensive continuity and defensive principles despite the daunting noise that rains down in Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“It’s no different than any other building,” Gregg Popovich insisted. “It’s loud … and if you go to another playoff game someplace else it will be loud too. It’s loud in San Antonio, it’s loud in Boston, it’s loud in Miami. It doesn’t matter where you are. Fans are great and they support their teams. I don’t think the players are very affected at this point by that. They’re pretty tuned in to the people they’re playing against, and everything else gets tuned out.”
Besides, nothing will be louder than Popovich screaming in their ears. It gets results. In Game 2, when the Thunder kept beating the Spurs to offensive rebounds, Popovich “advised” Danny Green to “Grab the f------ ball!” On his next opportunity, Green came flying in to snare a rebound.
“I wasn’t about to let it happen again,” Green said.
That’s the power of Popovich.
“Even if you’re winning, he finds a way to get in your a--,” Green said.
So there’s Popovich’s intensity, the Spurs’ experience and confidence, against the Thunder’s home crowd … and Durant’s bit of superstitious help.