SAN ANTONIO — As was crystallized to all who heard Kevin Durant’s tissue-industry-stimulating NBA MVP speech, what a pleasure it is to have a guy leading the league who can and actually wants to share his feelings.
Dating back to Durant’s candor about his blown defensive assignments to prompt co-star Russell Westbrook’s on-court rebuke in Game 2, Durant has been open and insightful with comments that have reflected and largely predicted the next steps in this now-tied Western Conference Finals.
So when Durant said Wednesday in advance of Game 5 in San Antonio that the Oklahoma City Thunder are going in with a different mindset than they did for those first two losses, it should give the Spurs some pause.
“We know what we have to do,” Durant said. “We know that we can’t go in there and play like we played before, which was too cool. Playing it too cool gets you beat every time.
“So we have to be engaged and be ready for a dogfight. That’s how it’s going to be from the beginning, so we’re excited for a great opportunity.”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich spent Wednesday trying to ensure his players recognize the great opportunity on their side.
Popovich is infamous for brusque answers to reporters' questions when they are not particularly thought-provoking, and he certainly didn’t change the sports world with any moving speech upon being voted this season’s NBA Coach of the Year.
When he chooses to share, though, Popovich is as sharp as they come.
So on Wednesday, both in his team meeting and later to reporters, Popovich praised San Antonio third-string point guard Cory Joseph for his go-for-it Game 4 approach off the bench in what was supposed to be garbage time. It was a fire that Popovich said no other Spur matched, and the coach was also honest in saying Westbrook’s Game 4 “ugly, hard-nosed attitude” was the ultimate demonstration of will.
“He played like it was his last game,” Popovich said, “and that’s the way it’s got to be.”
So often in NBA playoff series, Game 5 dictates the eventual greater outcome. Some of that is how adjustments are made by then; most of that is more deeply mental.
As the series gets later, both teams realize there’s no place for that “too cool” mindset Durant referenced. As a result, with both teams bringing that greater intensity, one team simply reveals itself as the physically better one.
Popovich concedes Oklahoma City’s superiority in athleticism, but he refuses to concede that a Thunder team that hasn’t won a title together should want it more than his Spurs.
With Tim Duncan’s considerable help, San Antonio is in its 17th consecutive postseason and has won four NBA championships—but bear in mind that the Spurs should be uniquely hungry from blowing that five-point lead in the final 28.2 seconds of Game 6 to the Miami Heat a year ago.
“It’s important for us to have a greater sense of place, a sense of where we are and what kind of an opportunity we have here—and to what degree do we want to take advantage of it,” Popovich said. “These things don’t come along every year to be in this kind of a position. I am anxious to see what our approach is mentally to the game (Thursday).”
You’ve heard it before, but this could be the last great run for the aging Spurs. Injuries notwithstanding, the young Thunder are almost assured to have at least one more excellent shot at it next year.
But the Spurs would be wise to heed the actual words of Durant, 25, as he just four days prior was gearing up to fight back against San Antonio’s 2-0 series lead.
“Tough times build your character, and I think this is another step for us, another obstacle for us, and we’re going to see what we do, how we handle it,” Durant said then. “That’s what being a man is all about, and that’s what a team is all about: going through tough times.
“It’s kind of easy to stay together when you’re sweeping a series.”
Besides Thunder coach Scott Brooks reporting that both Reggie Jackson (ankle) and Serge Ibaka (calf) seemed “pretty good” in their recoveries, the Spurs have another reason to watch out in Game 5.
On Wednesday, Durant was already locking in on hitting his jump shot, which he didn’t think was good enough in the Game 4 victory—and led him to shoot 6-of-16 from the field in the last game the teams played at AT&T Center.
“I’ve got to stay confident in shooting those shots,” Durant said.
So as the NBA Coach of the Year is pushing all the buttons he can on his side, the NBA MVP goes in knowing an epic road performance from him could steal the series’ biggest game.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.