The light at the end of the tunnel has become nearly blinding for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The defending Western Conference champs took another step toward easing their way back to the NBA Finals with a statement 100-88 win over the San Antonio Spurs Thursday night.
Behind a combined 52 points from All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and a rare three-point barrage from Derek Fisher (17 points, 5-of-7 threes), the Thunder (55-20) trimmed their deficit to just a half-game behind the conference-leading Spurs (56-20).
More importantly, they moved into a tie with San Antonio in the loss column, a tremendous get for Oklahoma City considering it holds the tiebreaker edge thanks to a superior record in the West.
The Thunder looked to put this game away early, sprinting out to a 29-18 lead after the first 12 minutes. Their scorching start carried over into the second quarter, thanks to a 26-5 run that started midway through the opening period.
But San Antonio made a valiant effort to keep the game within reach. Despite trailing by as much as 20 points (and by 14 in the fourth quarter), the Spurs trimmed the Thunder's lead to just three with less than six minutes to play.
Even in the loss, the Spurs showed just how strong of a team they really are.
They entered the night without Manu Ginobili, who could be out three to four weeks with a strained hamstring. And they were forced to play nearly half the game without All-Star point guard Tony Parker, who suffered a leg injury that coach Gregg Popovich said could be serious:
Pop fears Tony Parker might have tendinitis in shin. Different injury from ankle, says he's very concerned.— Jeff Caplan (@Caplan_NBA) April 5, 2013
Parker later hinted that he may be joining Ginobili on the sideline, at least until the real season starts:
Parker: "I just have to get healthy. I'm not going to give you any other answers than that." Pretty much is THE answer for Spurs.— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) April 5, 2013
Parker has been the Spurs' MVP this season, and a possible prolonged absence could provide an even steeper climb through the postseason:
What we learned tonight: 1) OKC's got a really good team; 2) Spurs are going to have trouble in playoffs with two stars out/hobbled.— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) April 5, 2013
But the blueprint for Spurs' success is the same one that they followed in this game. When a star player goes down on a Popovich-led team, there's always another player ready to pick up the slack.
Kawhi Leonard continued his impressive play, joining some elite company in the process:
Kawhi Leonard is the third player this season with 24 pts, 14 rebs, 6 asts and 50% FG.— chris palmer (@ESPNChrisPalmer) April 5, 2013
And Tim Duncan once again proved that he's still an elite player, finishing with 24 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in his 35 minutes.
No matter what they tried, though, the Spurs just couldn't keep pace with the youthful Thunder.
Although his team produced some notable offensive numbers (five different players finished with double figures), Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks credited his team's defensive effort for securing the important victory:
Scott Brooks after the game: "We did a good job executing throughout the game, we locked in on the defensive end."— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) April 5, 2013
The Spurs shot just 39.8 percent from the field, nearly a 10 percent drop from their season average of 48.6.
If you believe the basketball pundits (and you should), the West is by far the tougher conference. The Spurs and Thunder, however, have separated themselves from the rest of the pack, setting up a potential rematch of the 2012 Western Conference Finals. While they won't be without challengers, the two teams have compiled an astounding 24-15 record against the six other teams currently holding a Western Conference playoff spot.
Of course, that doesn't mean that either team will back off from this race for first place.
While these are two of the best road teams in the league (a combined 45-30 away from home), they also play inside two of the least welcoming venues in the league. They have tallied a collective 66 home wins on the season, which includes all four games in their season series.
At least one expert thinks that home-court advantage holds even more importance for the Spurs. Once that hostile crowd gets roaring inside the Chesapeake Energy Arena, the Thunder players seem to take on a new life:
Don't love Spurs in a series without home court vs. Thunder. Just not sure they can match the frenetic energy OKC plays with at home.— NBA Guru (@NBAGuru) April 5, 2013
Basketball fans chomping at the bit to see how this race will finish won't have to wait long for their next glance. The Thunder will head out for a road game with the Indiana Pacers on Friday night, while the Spurs will host the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday.
It's going to be a frantic, enticing charge down the season's final stretch.
But it won't be nearly as entertaining as when these two teams (likely) square off again with a trip to the 2013 NBA Finals at stake.