OKLAHOMA CITY — The last time Gregg Popovich boarded a plane bound for Miami, the San Antonio Spurs coach made no bones about the haunted feel of the familiar trip.
All those horrible memories were there, those fleeting Finals moments that cost them a fifth title in the seven-game loss to the Miami Heat and provided this fear factor that seemed to drive them all season long.
"At some point during the day, it goes through my head," Popovich said on that Jan. 25 day. "My hope is that over time I'll think about it every two days, and then every week and then every month and then that kind of thing."
From nightmares to dream scenarios, the Spurs, who ousted the Oklahoma City Thunder 112-107 in overtime in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals Saturday night, couldn't be happier to be headed that way again.
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This was a vintage Spurs win if ever there was one, if only because playing the entire second half without your star point guard doesn't typically propel elite teams to victory. Tony Parker finally succumbed to a left ankle injury that somehow had been kept under wraps since Game 4, and a third-year player the masses have never heard of, Cory Joseph, came to the rescue and sparked this surge that looked so unlikely.
But this went deeper than that, all the way back to training camp in October, when the Spurs all decided not to run from the pain that Ray Allen and all his Heat friends had caused. When Popovich began his annual ritual of making his players watch tape from the game that ended their previous season, there was more salt and a fresher wound than in all those years passed.
He preached about the little things, breaking down all the small moments that kept San Antonio from winning it all as a way of ensuring it wouldn't happen again. Mistakes will be made, of course, but they all needed to be a little sharper, a little wiser, and a little more prepared to take advantage of opportunities like these when they crossed this bridge again.
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Seven months later, they were simply better at all the small things than a Thunder team that came so close to recovering in this unpredictable series.
It was Kawhi Leonard wanting the ball more than Kevin Durant midway through the fourth quarter, when he soared over him for the offensive rebound and Boris Diaw followed with a demoralizing dunk that put San Antonio up 88-80. It was Tim Duncan going at the player Popovich deemed "the best defensive player in the league" in overtime — so composed, so confident and so smooth with his baseline turn and finger roll around Serge Ibaka that put them up 110-107 with 19.4 seconds to go. It was the Thunder learning Popovich's lesson the hard way, mishandling the ball at so many key moments (Durant and Russell Westbrook matched the Spurs' turnover total of 14 on their own). It was Joseph, the third-year player who Popovich had credited with having the bunker mentality he loves just days ago, being ready to accept his unexpected challenge and changing the tone upon arrival.
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It was Popovich himself avoiding the sort of blunder that might have led to a whole new set of nightmares, a claim that Thunder coach Scott Brooks can't make considering his senseless technical foul midway through the third quarter that led to a made Manu Ginobili free throw proved so costly.
"It starts with Pop on down, our foundation," Spurs guard Danny Green said. "Timmy and Manu did a great job leading us, (Diaw) stepped up big tonight for us. I think guys get more excited when those guys are out, especially our reserves. They come in with more energy, get a chance to play and show what they can do. ... Play good basketball. If you do that regardless of who is on the floor, you have a chance to win the game."
The Thunder's classy style afterward spoke volumes not only about them, but also about their reverence for these Spurs. Opposing coaches shook hands, star players and role players alike did the same. Oklahoma City has indeed been built with the Spurs' model in mind, with Thunder general manager Sam Presti a product of their system and the cultural similarities evident at every turn.
The Thunder had a pain of their own now, regrets that they swore would only drive them closer to the greatness that has proven so elusive. But the Spurs' experience was something altogether different, a crushing blow that sparked yet another late-in-life evolution from a team that has yet another chance to add to its incredible legacy.
"I think our guys, they actually grew from the loss last year," Popovich said after the grudge match had been officially scheduled. "I call it fortitude. I think they showed an unbelievable amount of fortitude. If I can compliment my own team humbly, to have that tough loss, especially the Game 6, and not have a pity party, and come back this year and get back to the same position, I think that's fortitude…I'm really proud of them, and even happier for them."
A happy haunting, indeed.
"We're happy to be back here this year," Duncan said. "We're happy to have another opportunity at it. We're happy that it's the Heat again. We'll be ready for them. We've got some experience, obviously, from last year against them. And we'll go back and look at some film. ... We've got that bad taste in our mouths still. Hopefully, we'll be ready to take it this time."
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