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Scott Howard-Cooper

Tim Duncan (center) rallies his guys during Game 1 of the Western Conference finals on Sunday.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Good, healthy scare might be just what Spurs needed

Posted May 28 2012 7:17PM

SAN ANTONIO -- The Spurs were in a bad place. Fourteen turnovers in the first half. Twenty-nine points allowed in the second quarter. A nine-point deficit at the end of the third. With home-court advantage at stake. Against an opponent with the three-time scoring champion, the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year, an All-Star point guard and the reigning KIA Sixth Man of the Year.

That was serious trouble Sunday night at AT&T Center. The Spurs were practically craving the rush of the scare. It was exactly what they were looking for, perhaps without realizing it during the temple-rubbing moments of the second half. Or perhaps, as coach Gregg Popovich later conceded, specifically because they realized it.

"We wanted it about 15 games ago," he said. "At least I did."

A challenge. A hard two-handed shove to the chest to see how they would respond.

A test. The Spurs wanted a test.

There had been so few the last six and 1/2 weeks, the way they had gone from 10 consecutive wins to close the regular season right into nine in a row to open the playoffs with this 101-98 victory over the Thunder. The late-April stretch that worried Popovich, with a road-heavy schedule and a back-to-back-to-back so close to the postseason, faded with barely a broken sweat. San Antonio stacked blowouts and rested its veterans even with a jammed calendar. And then the first two rounds were the same, a sweep followed by a sweep.

The first three wins against the Jazz were by 15, 31 and 12 points. Utah made the Spurs work for the clincher, but the series was over by then and San Antonio prevailed by six points.

Same thing in the Western Conference semifinals. Three games, three wins over the Clippers by 17, 17 and 10 points. At least there was Game 3 at Staples Center and having to roll out of the chaise lounge after spotting Los Angeles that 24-point lead in the second quarter. But that took the Spurs all of about a half to restore order. Game 4 was a three-point close-out win, followed by six days off before opening against the Thunder.

Just getting into a game was tough. So imagine the delight at walking into exactly what they needed Sunday night, a legitimate threat of an opponent for the first time, a team that can flick a 10-0 run on muscle memory alone. And to have it be Game 1, with home-court advantage immediately at risk -- how delightfully frightening.

"Not only that, we expected that," swingman Stephen Jackson said. "We have the utmost respect for these guys [the Thunder]. We watched them play just like they were watching us play. For those young guys to be here, so young and to be so talented and to accomplish what they've accomplished already is something that we respect. We know it's not going to be easy. We were probably more nervous than they were coming into this game because we know those young guys can play."

It was a real test. That's all that mattered, a fact the Spurs could cherish once they responded with a 39-point fourth quarter to win by three.

"I think it's good," said Kawhi Leonard, the rookie defensive specialist. "Winning a close game, if we get in that situation further in the series, what we did in Game 1 is good for our confidence. Just knowing if we keep pushing hard, we'll get a win."

But why would a team with Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, with all those championship years, need confidence?

"Because it's this year," Leonard said. "It's a new team this year. Just with everybody knowing we came out with that victory, it'll help us."

They had to summon something from deep Sunday, and it was a rush. It was that two-handed shove to the chest. It was what they wanted.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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