By JANIE McCAULEY
The Associated Press
OAKLAND, Calif. — Leave it to Gregg Popovich to play mind games ahead of the Western Conference finals.
So, what will he do to prepare his defense to stop the high-flying Warriors?
“Pray,” Popovich quipped Saturday before the Spurs departed Texas for the Bay Area.
Stephen Curry could only chuckle at that one.
“Gamesmanship,” Golden State’s Curry said, “I love it.”
Popovich doesn’t have his old coaching pals Mike Brown or Steve Kerr fooled. Brown spent part of last season working unofficially alongside Popovich and is now coaching Golden State in place of the ailing Kerr, who attended practice Saturday for the first time in more than three weeks as he recovers from his latest procedure to repair a spinal fluid leak that left him dealing with debilitating symptoms.
“That’s Pop,” Brown said with a laugh. “He’s doing a lot more than praying right now. He knows what he wants to do against us.”
As dominant as the Warriors have been sweeping through the first two rounds of the playoffs, praying might not hurt either.
Kevin Durant doesn’t care who is on the court for San Antonio, he knows that Popovich will have his group ready complete with a few surprises in the playbook.
Tony Parker is out the rest of the way with a leg injury. Kawhi Leonard is not at 100 percent because of a tender ankle. Tim Duncan is long ago retired.
“They’re a machine,” Durant said. “They just keep going at you, no matter who’s on the court. They run their system. Similar to us, I feel like, where a guy goes down, somebody steps in.”
San Antonio thoroughly dismantled James Harden and Houston 114-75 in Game 6 on Thursday night behind LaMarcus Aldridge’s 34 points and 12 rebounds to close out the series as All-Star Leonard sat out nursing an injured left ankle he hurt in a Game 5 overtime win.
Golden State has barely been tested so far this postseason, going 8-0 against Portland and Utah.
Sure, it was nearly seven months ago when the Spurs came to town and thoroughly spoiled Durant’s much-hyped debut — a 129-100 whipping in the season opener — with the Warriors after his scrutinized departure from Oklahoma City.
“That seems like years ago to be honest,” KD said. “Both teams have gotten so much better.”
The Spurs are back in the Western Conference finals for the first time since winning the 2014 title.
Here are a few of the ample story lines to watch when these familiar teams begin their best-of-seven series this afternoon at Oracle Arena:
∫ KAWHI’S TOUGHNESS: Leonard had just a few days to get healthy.
Popovich said he went through a full practice Saturday.
“He’s a soldier, man. He’s a fighter,” Durant said. “If he’s out there, he’s not going to make any excuses.”
∫ POP’S DISCIPLE: Out of work last season, Brown spent much of his time attending Spurs meetings, practices and games in an informal capacity with good friend, Popovich.
Kerr hired Brown as an assistant last summer.
Brown, last a Spurs assistant in 2003 who has said he hopes to do something to repay Popovich someday for the opportunity, certainly learned some X’s and O’s but it went far beyond that to observing how Popovich has adapted to players now and continued to be a top-notch communicator.
“Mike who? I don’t know a Mike Brown,” Popovich joked. “Mikey’s done a great job. Steve was really smart in hiring him. He didn’t hire him for this reason, Steve didn’t want this to happen, but they know each other well. Mike knows the program well. Steve is right there with him, in his ear. They’re doing things the way they’ve done it for a while now under Steve’s leadership.”
∫ FAMILIAR DAVIDS: David Lee will face his old Warriors team, while David West faces the Spurs, his former team.
A swap of Davids, indeed. West has been helping the Warriors get ready for his old team.
While he still keeps in touch with Curry and others, Lee is downplaying any potential nostalgia from his time with Golden State.
“I try to keep things as simple as possible,” he said. “It’s a building and an environment, a lot of people out there that I’m very familiar with and keep in touch with many of the guys on their team still. With that being said, they’re competitors, I’m a competitor, guys on my team here, the Spurs, are competitors.”
∫ MORE REST: The Warriors again are well-rested and healthy for the next round of their championship chase.
Durant, for one, feels great after dealing with a left knee injury that cost him 19 games late in the regular season then a nagging left calf during the Portland series.
San Antonio will have to try to keep pace from the tip.
“We didn’t have much time to practice. It was a long series, an exhausting series and now we play at noon, but we’re here,” Manu Ginobili said. “We’ve got to prepare as fast as we can.”