By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
OKLAHOMA CITY – As the points mount in sudden flurries and push the fervor of the home crowd to maddening levels for the teeth-gnashing visitors, scenes of frustration have grown tenser and more emotional as this high-stakes Western Conference finals charges along.
Both arenas, the AT&T Center in San Antonio and Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City — the locals dubbed it Loud City years ago — have each become caldrons of frayed nerves and blown tempers in one of the more peculiar series in recent memory in which the home team has won all five games in a rout.
“This is the craziest series I’ve ever been involved in,” said Spurs star Tim Duncan, a veteran of 16 postseasons.
The two teams, though, are thought of as emotional polar opposites: The button-down Spurs exuding poise and professionalism; the hair-trigger Thunder being young, wild and always living on the edge. Yet neither team has escaped the other’s hostile arena with their emotions intact.
It’s easy to understand why. The Spurs, with the Big Three’s clock always ticking down on their championship window, are so close to a return to The Finals and a chance to seize the championship they let slip through their fingers a year ago that the pain of failing now would cut even deeper than the loss to the Heat. The Thunder, its stars both 25 years old, and Kevin Durant breaking through to win his first MVP, believe they would have been the team returning to The Finals for another showdown with LeBron James if not for Russell Westbrook‘s knee injury in the first round of the 2013 Playoffs. What was supposed to be a dynasty in the making is instead trying to stave off elimination.
This roiling undercurrent is setting off even the most composed.
In Game 4 at OKC, with the Thunder blasting the game open, Duncan screamed at his legendary coach, Gregg Popovich, Duncan animatedly gesturing with his arms before fixating his glare elsewhere and turning up the verbal heat on teammate Danny Green.
In Game 5 Thursday night back at San Antonio, Durant screamed at the clock operator when he wasn’t allowed to check in during a second-quarter stop in play. According to USA Today, Durant also engaged a Spurs fan after she yelled at him to sit down. The always volatile Westbrook got on Serge Ibaka over a missed assignment as the chance to back the Spurs into a corner evaporated along with the Thunder’s composure.
“Well, it’s the playoffs, it’s going to decide who goes to The Finals and who wins the Western Conference,” Durant said. “It’s going to be emotional, there’s going to be words, there’s going to be physicality. It’s been a crazy series, yes it has, as far as momentum and teams playing well at home. But in our case, we’ve got another 48 minutes to try to take this thing to a Game 7, and who knows what happens after that.”
During Game 2 in San Antonio, with the Spurs running and the crowd raising the decibel levels to mind-splitting, Westbrook glared at Durant after giving up an easy basket and jabbed his index fingers at each side of his head, a gesture meant to tell Durant to wake up.
Brooks said he doesn’t worry about his team becoming its own worst enemy during the course of a heated game. He said he takes it as proof his team is engaged.
“I know this is probably strange to say this, we’re always at our best when we’re on edge with one another because we are raising the bar high,” Brooks said. “We are competitive. We don’t want to let each other down. Just like when San Antonio had Duncan and Green, it happens everywhere. I know when we’re locked in defensively and our competitive spirit is at a high, our guys are ready to fight for one another and sometimes it takes a kick in the pants to get each other to do that.”