OKLAHOMA CITY -- If there was a lesson to be learned from Friday's showdown between the Thunder and Spurs it's this: The Western Conference playoffs are wide open.
For essentially the entire first half of the season, it was pretty much agreed upon that the Western road to the NBA Finals was going to have to go through Oklahoma City. And while the Thunder did sit atop the West standings, the gap has been narrowed to three games as the Spurs took down OKC 114-105 Friday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
When the discussion of elite contenders comes up, San Antonio's name isn't looped in. People talk about the Heat and Bulls first, the Thunder second and then toss in teams like the Lakers, Grizzlies and Spurs in the third tier. But it's time to put the Spurs up top. Because with Tony Parker having what Gregg Popovich called the "best season of his career" along with a cast of role players that seem to execute their jobs beautifully every night, San Antonio is completely legit.
The Thunder know it. There was a different kind of mood in the locker room following the game as Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and others got dressed and spoke to reporters. There wasn't the same kind of disappointment that came along with the recent home losses to the Cavaliers and Rockets. The Thunder seemed to understand that they got handled by a smart, strong, solid, veteran team.
“It's tough to lose to these guys," said Kevin Durant. "They always have our number, I think. It's still kind of early before the playoffs. We just have to figure how we're going to get better man. I think [Thursday against Denver] was a step in the right direction. Tonight we stepped back a little bit."
Durant didn't have a great night shooting just 8-19 from the floor for 25 points. He had trouble finding a rhythm, took a lot of jumpers and wasn't able to assert himself in the fourth quarter the way he normally does. A lot of that had to do with rookie Kawhi Leonard playing quality defense on him.
"[Leonard] did as good as anybody would expect," Popovich said. "Kevin is a future hall of fame player and Kawhi, a rookie. The best part about it is he doesn't get intimidated and just does his best and he keeps working at it. I am proud of him."
The Spurs have the season series against the Thunder now, which means if it comes to a tiebreaker, the edge goes to San Antonio. And consider this: Manu Ginobili didn't play in any of those three games and the Spurs just improved themselves by adding Stephen Jackson at the trade deadline. So not only did San Antonio go into maybe the toughest building in the league and find a win against the conference's top team, they did it without their full complement of talent.
They aren't as sexy as some other teams. They're old, and they know it. They don't play flashy and if they don't shoot the ball well, they have a hard time winning. But with that reliable pick-and-roll between Tony Parker and Tim Duncan, the Spurs have an offense that's time-tested and can hold up against anyone.
The East is top-heavy with the Bulls and Heat. But the West has some depth and it's pretty clear the Thunder aren't in for a cakewalk to The Finals. The Spurs, Grizzlies and Lakers appear to be the prime challengers, but any team can get hot. The Mavs have a chance because they have Dirk. The Rockets improved at the deadline. The Clippers have faded but still have two All-Stars in their starting five. If you want to hand the Western belt to Oklahoma City, you need to stop and pump those brakes.
And I can tell you this for sure: The Thunder are going to be rooting for whoever San Antonio gets in the playoffs. Because that's a team they don't want to see. There's not a lot separating the two clubs, but it would take a lot for OKC to beat the Spurs four out of seven.
San Antonio held a 27-point lead on the Thunder, OKC's biggest deficit of the season. And while the Thunder whittled it down to two at one point in the fourth, the Spurs came up with big shots and big stops to hang on. Tim Duncan finished an and-1. Danny Green hit two jumpers and stole an inbounds pass that led to a dunk. While the Thunder frantically made a game out of it and had their rabid home crowd roaring, the Spurs stood tall and finished the job. And by doing so, made a solid statement: Don't forget about us.