HANG TIME, Texas — There were just over two minutes gone in the fourth quarter when the door seemed to swing open, the red carpet rolled out and Kevin Durant was all but ushered down an empty aisle through the San Antonio defense for a slam dunk that practically screamed out.
It’s still our house and it’s still our Western Conference.
Maybe more than ever. As the days dwindle in the regular season, the inevitable rematch in The Finals with Miami seems more, well, inevitable.
It’s been more than two months now since anyone has looked capable of taking down the defending champion Heat. But it’s been thought all season that the West half of the bracket was going to be a minefield fraught with peril.
When Tony Parker limped up and down the court and finally had to be removed from the game Thursday night by coach Gregg Popovich, the path became clearer for the Thunder. It not only enabled OKC to finish off a 100-88 win and essentially take over the top spot in the conference, but could show the cracks that could eventually crumble highly successful regular season for the Spurs.
There had been a sense for much of the season that the Spurs were a more complete, more capable all-around team than the Thunder this season. That was in part due to the absence of James Harden in OKC and the development of the Spurs supporting cast of Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Danny Green.
But San Antonio is still a wheel that turns around the aging Big Three axis and Manu Ginobili is already sidelined for the start of the playoffs with a strained hamstring. If Parker’s problem (ankle? shin?) can’t be solved in short time, the Spurs could have problems in the first two rounds, let alone a conference finals showdown with the Thunder.
At the same time, a Nuggets team that has already lost its blasting cap in Ty Lawson to a torn plantar fascia in his right heel sees Danilo Gallinari go down with what could be a torn ACL in his left knee.
Yes, George Karl was the Western Conference Coach of the Month in March and will certainly manipulate his lineup to keep it from jumping completely off the track. But the beauty and the effectiveness of the Nuggets all season long has been the fitting together of so many different pieces to excel in a league usually built around individual stars. Take away one piece and you’ve got a challenge. Take away two and the entire structure begins to teeter.
Despite ringing up their first 50-win season in franchise history, the Clippers have fallen from grace since their 25-6 start. Whether it’s Vinny Del Negro’s coaching, Blake Griffin’s moodiness, DeAndre Jordan’s immaturity or Chris Paul’s carping at his teammates, there is unrest in Lob City and less a sense that the Clippers are a championship contender.
There is no reason to believe the Warriors, Rockets or Jazz are capable challengers. Even if the Lakers were to hang onto the No. 8 spot, does anyone have faith that this uneven, turmoil-filled season will suddenly take a path straight up for six or eight weeks once the playoffs begin?
That leaves the rock ‘em, sock ‘em get, get-up-in-your-face Grizzlies as perhaps the only solid, healthy challengers to the reigning Western Conference champs. If you think back two years ago to the contentious seven-game series between Memphis and OKC, there is most definitely potential for the Thunder to be tested.
But what was supposed to be round after round of roadblocks and difficult obstacles is starting to clear out like Durant’s path to the basket for a slam dunk.