The Portland Trail Blazers already appear destined to end a brief playoff drought. How far they can advance, however, remains to be seen.
A challenging road trip could provide a glimpse of their potential.
Portland opens a stretch of four road games against Western Conference contenders in five days Friday night against the red-hot San Antonio Spurs.
The Trail Blazers (29-9) missed the playoffs each of the last two seasons after first-round exits in each of the prior three. Their previous three postseason appearances also ended in the first round.
With the league's third-best record, another postseason berth looks likely. But to reach the conference finals for the first time in 14 years, they'll likely have to go through some combination of their next four opponents.
After facing the Spurs, Portland will take on Dallas and Houston before concluding the trip in Oklahoma City on Tuesday. The Trail Blazers, who are 1 1/2 games behind San Antonio (31-8) for the conference's best record, are 4-2 against those teams, though only one of those contests came away from home.
"Right now, it's about San Antonio and they've won six in a row and have the best record in the league or close to it - so the road trip is challenging, but like anything else, you can't look at the whole thing," coach Terry Stotts said. "If you're going to read a 2,000 page book, you can't look at the whole book. You've got to take the first chapter."
While the Spurs have experienced much more postseason success in recent years, Portland has been a thorn in their side, taking 12 of 16 meetings. The Trail Blazers claimed a 115-105 home victory on Nov. 2 with San Antonio yielding a season-high 55.6 field goal percentage. The Spurs also let Portland shoot 61.6 percent in the last meeting in San Antonio, a 136-106 Trail Blazers victory on March 8 that marked their worst loss of 2012-13.
Tony Parker was 7 of 20 in the most recent meeting and has struggled in seven matchups since 2010-11, shooting 41.5 percent - by far his lowest mark against any opponent.
Parker helped prevent a late collapse in Wednesday's 109-105 home win over Utah - San Antonio's ninth victory in 10 games - scoring 19 of his 25 points in the second half. The Jazz ended the game on a 21-9 run with Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili already on the bench as the game had earlier appeared to be out of reach for Utah.
"(Parker) pulled us through it again," coach Gregg Popovich said. "All three (Parker, Duncan and Ginobili) of those guys did a great job, but then in the fourth Tony saved it for us, really."
Parker is shooting 57.1 percent over his last nine games and San Antonio is hitting 54.7 percent of its shots during a four-game home win streak.
LaMarcus Aldridge was the star for Portland in its 108-96 win over Cleveland on Wednesday, scoring nine straight points during a 15-2 game-ending run.
"He knew it was winning time and I just felt like you could see him with the determination of making a play at the rim," Stotts said.
Aldridge finished with 32 points and 18 rebounds for his 22nd double-double, and is averaging 23.3 points on 58.3 percent shooting in his last 12 games versus San Antonio.
Damian Lillard scored 28, including 20 in the first half, against the Cavaliers, and is averaging 27.3 points in four career matchups with the Spurs - his best against any team.