The San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder have been the class of the Western Conference lately.
They’ve combined for the last three conference titles (San Antonio in 2014 and 2013 and Oklahoma City in 2012).
They have six conference-finals appearances in the last four years (both in 2012, , both in 2014, Spurs in 2013, both in 2012, Thunder in 2011).
And they comfortably rank No. 1 and No. 2 in the conference in wins since 2010-11:
It has just been understood the Western Conference title runs through San Antonio or Oklahoma City, if not both.
But entering a Christmas matchup in San Antonio, neither team has hit its groove this season.
At 13-16, the Thunder are out of playoff position due to early injuries to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and Durant has been out with another setback.
The 18-11 Spurs rank seventh in the West, and though that’s mostly a product of the conference’s historic strength, they sure miss Kawhi Leonard. Reports on Leonard’s injury have been mixed, but the latest from Gregg Popovich is pretty pessimistic.
When these teams are at full strength, San Antonio is one of the NBA’s elite teams. Consecutive NBA Finals trips, including winning last season’s championship, prove that.
But Oklahoma City has the athleticism to give the Spurs fits. No player exemplifies that better Serge Ibaka. The Thunder had won seven straight and 12 of 14 over San Antonio with Ibaka in the lineup before the Spurs closed last year’s conference finals with consecutive wins. If Ibaka had been healthy at the start, maybe that series would have gone differently.
Of course, Oklahoma City’s success against the Spurs – or any team – is predicated on Durant being healthy. There’s significantly more hope he returns tomorrow than Leonard does. Not only does Leonard’s injury seem more serious, San Antonio tends to value long-term health over securing home-court advantage. That isn’t a dilemma the Spurs have faced in a while, but this loaded conference, they probably can’t have their cake and eat it too.
Right now, it seems improbable the Thunder and Spurs are once again the last teams standing in the West. But year after year, these teams find a way. There’s a good chance they show glimpses of why tomorrow.