It is often the most dangerous five minutes of the night. One veteran basketball coach described the time frame to me by comparing it to a giant tidal wave. "You either paddle your way out front and get on top of it or it's gonna suck you under."
At this point in the 2014 NBA Playoffs the games for the Spurs at home have become almost comically predictable. A back and forth first quarter, followed by a stronger 2nd, which is capped off by a dizzying flurry that gives the Spurs a sizeable lead and leaves their crowd seeping adrenaline and pride from every pore as the first half concludes.
With sore, red hands and hoarse throats Spurs' fans head to the concession areas while suited men in Luche Libra masks, or perhaps a traveling magician entertains those few that remain in their seats during halftime. The fifteen minutes pass quickly and the arena that was so recently filled with pulsating, electric hostility is, by comparison, reduced to a summer church league setting where your mom and Aunt Percie are the only fans in attendance.
In rather unceremonious fashion play resumes when the team that lost the opening jump inbounds the ball and the 3rd quarter is underway even as most don't notice.
Until Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, the Spurs had been able to tread water in the third quarter and withstand their opponent's onslaught. Their halftime leads often evaporated, sometimes completely during the third, but during this playoff run they've found a way to stave off a complete meltdown. In each win the Spurs did just enough to stay out front while their opponent never got completely sucked under. That changed on Wednesday night.
The Spurs closed the 2nd quarter with a exceptional (if predictable) 22-8 run, but then opened the 3rd with a rather unexpected 18-6 start that blew the game wide open and for all intents and purposes closed the door on Game 2. For the first time this postseason, that dangerous, lurking tidal wave that is the opening minutes of the 3rd washed over a team, and the Spurs were in no mood for mercy against their surprisingly overmatched opponents. It was the worst fight scene from Rocky IV as Balboa hesitated to throw in the towel while Apollo got pummeled.
The media room was abuzz after the game mercifully ended. Mixed in with the beat reporters for both teams were many of the higher profile reporters from ESPN, TNT and other national outlets (and Jimmy Goldstein of course). All were in amazement at the utter domination by the Spurs and the seeming lack of answers that Oklahoma City has going forward. "30 points combined for Durant and Westbrook?"
"Kawhi Leonard played only 15 minutes?"
"How does Danny Green get that open, that often?"
"No one else in the league would even try the pass that Manu ma.."
Whispers quickly ceased as Gregg Popovich abruptly took the podium. For the uninitiated, it was Popovich in his prime. Brief, uninterested and in no mood to reflect on his team's 35 point win, which is exactly what everyone should expect by now, but somehow don't. When asked what turned the momentum in the Spurs favor in the 2nd quarter he answered simply, "I don't know." Then as quickly as he entered, he was gone.
Tony Parker followed a few minutes later and he too was in no mood for celebration. Parker is usually friendly from the podium but his demeanor on Wednesday was different. He no longer subtly complains about his lack of playing time in April. Now, he sounds more like Popovich than an international celebrity. "We're just very focused and nobody is satisfied," he said.
So with two difficult Q&A's out of the way, the reporters in the room were looking forward to the affable Danny Green taking the podium. Danny is unique. It's not uncommon to find him wandering the halls nears the cafeteria in the late afternoon on game days, looking for a snack. If he walks past you in the hall, he's quick to give a high five or a fist bump, even if protocol for those with press passes would dictate that glad handing with players is frowned upon. But Danny Green just seems like a normal guy enjoying the moment.
His face lit up when he described why his confidence level seems to be so high. "My teammates help with that. I don't know how, but I can always hear Tim yelling 'LIGHT IT!' whenever I'm in position to shoot." It was classic Green, and it's hard not to break out in a smile while watching his eyes gleam as he describes Duncan's confidence in him.
But even Green bristled when questions turned to last years Finals or the 2012 WCF against the Thunder. He spoke of redemption, and chips on shoulders. Normally, statements like those can be tossed into the massive pile of cliches that litters locker rooms and arenas, but his words seemed different.
There is a change underway with these Spurs that is interesting to watch.
I wrote earlier this week about their growing silence, but now that stoic approach to their jobs is morphing into unadulterated anger. There are real demons lurking inside the minds of these players, in the shadows of the AT&T Center, and they seem genuinely determined to beat them back at all costs. Their focus is palpable and the time for niceties has passed. Credit for creating this sense of fearful anger has to go to Popovich, who seems to have not only masterminded its formation, but also timed it so that the anger is beginning to bubble over now, at a moment completely of his choosing.
A mind bent on revenge can be a dangerous thing for all parties involved. If things start to go awry for a group so determined, so hell bent on claiming what they believe is theirs, things could spiral out of control and this entire dream could be snatched away in an instant.
But I don't see that happening. Not with this group. Not with Tim Duncan and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili leading the way in what might be their last charge up the hill. I see that quiet determination manifesting itself into pure anger to be used to fuel them through the difficult days ahead. That cold, uncaring assassin-like team that was previously satisfied knowing that if they executed, they'd most likely beat you, has now become an angry team. A group of men that are somehow channeling that emotion and embarrassing their opponents as they hurtle toward the end game.
In many ways it's scary to watch. But, it's also completely fulfilling and somehow right.