OKLAHOMA CITY -- Chances are you heard Gregg Popovich's zinger that mocked Serge Ibaka's transformative medical prognosis from gone for good to good to go. And the odds are even greater that you didn't hear Popovich's request that accompanied it.
Popovich's full response to a query about Manu Ginobili's bothersome left foot injury following Game 3 of the Western Conference finals was this: "He'll be fine -- or, he's out for the rest of the playoffs. [Laughter.] You've still got to have some fun, even if you lose. Come on, it's basketball. Yeah, we wanted to win, but I want to laugh, too. Make sure Sammy gets that."
Sammy would be Sam Presti, the general manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder. He was the target for Popovich's barb. Consider it a playful jab, a tossed water balloon instead of a 95-mile-an-hour fastball to the helmet.
It's part of the subtext of these Western Conference finals, a clash between two franchises with shared organizational philosophies and intertwined personnel histories.
It started at a summer basketball camp, when Presti clung to Spurs general manager R.C. Buford like adhesive tape in the hopes of landing a job. That led to an internship in the video room, from where Presti sprinted up the Spurs' staff directory to put himself in position for the general manager job of the then-Seattle SuperSonics by age 29.
The problem with tutoring so many pupils is that eventually you have to face them outside of the classroom -- and in the cutthroat world of pro sports, that means someone's success will come at a close friend's expense.
"It's difficult, because you root for those guys all the time, and then all of a sudden you can't," Popovich said. "But win or lose, we all remain close and friendly."
"Close and friendly" still allows for cynicism and tweaking. The Spurs were skeptical all along that Ibaka would miss the entire series with a strained left calf, as the Thunder originally announced. Ibaka wound up playing in Game 3 and making a major impact.
Popovich, asked Monday about the way the Thunder disseminated the news on Ibaka, said: "Everybody handles things differently. No one really knows what their motivation was or how much was a game or how much was just fact. I don't think it's really relevant. You go play, and whoever is on the court, plays. It's none of our business who they play or who they don't play."
Yes, Presti heard Popovich's postgame quip. There will be no response forthcoming.
"I worked there long enough to know one thing, and that's that you never take the bait," Presti said. "It's good humor. That's one of the things about [Popovich] that people are slowly starting to acknowledge: that he's a pretty funny guy."
The sense of humor is one of the things about Popovich that didn't rub off on Presti. Presti can carefully craft a good analogy, but he can't match Popovich one-liner for one-liner. And he's not about to try.
"I'm focused on what I have to do," Presti said.
He said the dramatic reversal in Ibaka's status -- in which he went from "done" to "day-to-day" in just a week, was "a matter of facts." "The swelling in Serge's calf demonstrated an incredibly rapid reduction," Presti said. "Upon that swelling being reduced, it became clear that he wasn't suffering from the kind of functional limitations that would initially be feared. Once we started to develop a sense that this injury was progressing better than anyone could have anticipated, we made a decision to change his status."
So no misdirection to play mind games with the Spurs?
"To be quite honest with you, we never put that much thought into it," Presti said.
The familiarity would preclude any shenanigans. And there's not quite a sibling-level rivalry that would allow for any and all tactics. "There are some relationships there," Presti said. "But at the end of the day, both of our responsibility is to work as hard as possible to beat the other team. After the series, I think there's a great deal of respect between the teams."
There doesn't appear to be any lingering animosity for the Thunder's comeback victory over the Spurs in the 2012 Western Conference finals. Before Game 3, Presti and Buford crossed paths behind the baseline, greeted each other warmly and wound up in a conversation that ate up a good share of the 90-minute tipoff countdown clock. (Presti said he was making sure that all of the ticket accommodations Buford requested for his family were being met.)
Steve Kerr can attest to the Spurs' bond surviving playoff skirmishes. He played for Popovich on the Spurs' first championship team in 1999 and won another ring in San Antonio in 2003, the final year of his playing career.
As general manager of the Phoenix Suns, Kerr faced Popovich's Spurs twice in the playoffs, in 2008 and 2010. "The first time they beat us four out of five," Kerr said. "I came down the hallway and paid my respects to Pop and said something like, 'Good luck guarding Chris Paul in the next series.' He laughed and we had a hug. Two years later, we beat them and I came down the hall and paid my respects and he told me how happy he was for me and my players. That's Pop. He's the ultimate pro and mentor. Win or lose, he's amazing. That's what makes him who he is.
"You definitely feel like you're part of the group. Pop makes you feel special. You know that you've learned from the best. And you know you always have his support. That's the main thing. Like, for me, anytime I have to make a big decision, I call Pop. And he not only is good at that role, but he enjoys that role. He's been phenomenal. He's always given me advice, even when I was with 'the enemy.'"
Kerr is the enemy once more, now that he's left the TNT broadcast table and taken the Golden State Warriors' coaching job. And if the Warriors should beat the Spurs in a series down the road (not too outlandish an idea considering the Warriors gave the Spurs all they could handle in the playoffs last year) Popovich might have contributed to his own downfall.
When asked if he consulted with Kerr while Kerr weighed an offer from the New York Knicks before taking the Golden State Warriors' coaching job, Popovich gave this non-confirmation confirmation: "Friends talk."
You could view Popovich's situation as either a dilemma or a no-lose situation. In Kerr's eyes, Popovich gains status even if he doesn't advance.
"It's an incredible feeling: 'Man, this guy's looking after me,'" Kerr said. "He wanted me to do well when I played for him, and he wants me to do well when I'm trying to beat him." So yes, Popovich can earn points in defeat. But he'd rather earn a trip to the NBA Finals.