San Antonio • He’s a gawky, angular mass of elbows and knees, slicing toward the basket like a knife passing through brisket. Manu Ginobili is left-handed, too, which further befuddles defenders closing in on him.
Yet as awkward and unconventional as Ginobili’s style appears, he epitomized the various routes the San Antonio Spurs have taken in their record-challenging run of perfection. Ginobili did not miss in the fourth quarter of Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, knocking down all three of his field-goal attempts and making 5 of 5 free throws in a 101-98 victory over the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder.
Like Ginobili, the Spurs are a series of synchronized parts that can shift gears on command. On Sunday night, it was coach Gregg Popovich’s order to unleash their veteran fury — “I want some nasty!” he shouted at his huddled players — a caught-on-camera moment that has gone viral on the Internet.
San Antonio promptly turned a nine-point deficit through three quarters into a 10-point lead on Ginobili’s driving layup and free throw with two minutes left. After committing 14 turnovers in the first half, the Spurs had only three in the second, including one in the fourth quarter. After looking old and clay-footed with 16 points in the third quarter, they broke loose for 39 in the fourth and escaped the Thunder to remain unbeaten at 9-0 in these playoffs.
“They made it hard on us,” said guard Tony Parker, who was responsible for four turnovers. “I know if we play the same way, we’re not going to win Game 2.”
The Spurs approach talk of their streak with that same focus and discipline, claiming that even privately they refuse to attach any historical significance to it. For the record, they are two victories away from matching the 2001 and 1989 Los Angeles Lakers for the most victories in a row to open the postseason.
“When we are asked, we remember that we are on a great streak, but we really don’t care,” Ginobili said Monday after practice. “We are close, seven games away from accomplishing something way bigger than a streak. If it’s happening, fine. But we always think about the next game and how tough it’s going to be.”
With their Game 1 victory, the Spurs became the fifth team in NBA history to win at least 19 games in a row. San Antonio is tied with the 2000 Lakers for the fourth longest streak, and if the Spurs win Game 2 here Tuesday night, they will join the 1971 Milwaukee Bucks with 20 consecutive victories. The 1971-72 Lakers hold the record with 33 victories in a row, followed by the 2008 Houston Rockets with 22.
Eschewing talk of the streak might be akin to baseball players not speaking to a pitcher in the midst of a no-hitter.
“Nobody’s going to say anything in the seventh inning,” point guard Gary Neal said with a laugh. “Right now, we’re in the seventh inning. We got seven more outs.”
But the Spurs silence cuts to the core and comes from the top, descending through the ranks from Popovich and Tim Duncan.
“In the scheme of things, what’s a streak when you’ve won four championships?” Neal said. “Everything here is always put in perspective. The leaders of our team, starting with Coach Pop, Tim Duncan, Manu, Tony, they always do a great job of that, just keeping everything in perspective.”
Popovich shuns talk of the streak with dismissive glares and clipped answers. In his 16th season as the Spurs’ coach, he has been here before. The 1999 team won 12 in a row en route to the first of the championships.
But Popovich will talk of the difference between that team, which had center David Robinson as its star, and the franchise stability maintained through Duncan, providing a window of sorts into what drives these current Spurs.
“I’m very fortunate in that I didn’t have to deal with a star ego. I dealt with grown-ups who have character and a prioritization already set in their lives and values,” Popovich said. “When Timmy came along, David understood his talent, and made it very easy to start to become the go-to guy. As Timmy got older, he understood the value of Manu and Tony, and was able to share that spotlight with them.
“I never had a talk, never had a discussion, a meeting or anything with any of those guys about that. We just did it, and the process kind of morphed along. It was because of their character that we were able to do it.”