Once again, home-court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs will be on the line when the Thunder and Spurs meet Thursday night.
Unlike last season, when San Antonio won 24 of its final 27 to take the top spot, the Thunder now has a chance to control its own destiny.
If the Thunder wins out, it will finish at 62-20 and go into the postseason as the No. 1 seed for the first time. That would give the Thunder all potential Game 7s at home through the Western Conference Finals.
San Antonio, which is a game and a half ahead of the Thunder, still could finish with an identical 62-20 record under that scenario. But since both the Spurs and Thunder lead their respective divisions and the four-game regular season series between the two teams would be split, Oklahoma City would win the next tiebreaker, which is conference won-lost percentage. Even if both teams won out following a Thunder victory Thursday, the Thunder would own a 39-13 conference record while the Spurs would finish at 37-15 in the West.
“We want to get the best seed possible. We're not going to shy away from that,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “But once you get in the playoffs, anything can happen. Just because you have the 1 or the 2 seed that doesn't necessarily mean you're going to advance.”
But history shows it helps immensely when it comes to a potential Game 7.
Since 1948, home teams are 89-22 in Game 7s. That's an 80 percent success rate.
“It's always nice to have an extra game, if needed, on your home floor,” Brooks said. “Especially our floor. It's such an important part of our success with the fan base that we have.”
The Thunder overcame the Spurs last year despite San Antonio having home-court advantage in the Western Conference Finals. But that was largely because OKC won Game 5 in San Antonio before closing out the series at home. Still, that series victory was a long shot. After falling into an 0-2 hole, the Thunder essentially overcame 1-in-16 odds in that improbable comeback.
And that was with James Harden.
Should the Thunder and Spurs meet again in the conference finals, Oklahoma City will go in with the inferior supporting cast. It's the opposite of what we saw last year and the thing that could make owning home-court advantage that much more critical.
Harden single handedly alleviated numerous Thunder weaknesses a year ago, but mostly the team's susceptibility to scoring droughts. San Antonio had no answer for his playmaking and perimeter shooting.
Now, with Harden in Houston, the Thunder's bench is a work in progress at a time when San Antonio's complementary pieces have not only remained intact but also progressed.
Second-year forward Kawhi Leonard, guard Danny Green and center Tiago Splitter all are having career years, showing improvement across the board. Last year's series flipped when that trio vanished and left stars Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan to do all the work. Parker was bottled up by Thabo Sefolosha, the Thunder's supporting cast stepped up and it suddenly became a seven-on-two series the rest of the way. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich actually had to bench Splitter and Green in the final few games.
But those were lessons they learned from and are believed to have gotten better because of. This year, while Brooks has kept the training wheels attached to younger players like Reggie Jackson, the Spurs have been busy preparing for more playoff battles.
When the Spurs lost on a buzzer-beater at Memphis on Monday, the second time in as many nights they fell in that fashion, Popovich didn't panic. He instead looked to the future and figured it would help. San Antonio went on the road without the help of Ginobili, Duncan and Leonard, three of its best four players, and took a tough-nosed Grizzlies squad down to the wire.
“If they have the character I know they have, this is all going in the computer,” Popovich told reporters after the Grizzlies loss. “It will make them smarter and make them make the right decisions come playoff time hopefully.”
That could be the Thunder's worst nightmare.
“You can just tell they're just playing with more confidence,” Brooks said of San Antonio's role players. “They do a great job of developing their players, and they don't get enough credit for it.”
Which is why winning home-court advantage could be so pivotal to the Thunder.
Role players historically perform better at home as opposed to on the road. Last year, Leonard, Green and Splitter combined to average 20.3 points, 14.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists in the Spurs' three conference finals home games. They mustered just 11.6 points, 8.7 rebounds and two assists in Oklahoma City. Some of the drop-off was a result of Splitter and Green being benched. But their benching also was a byproduct of their drop-off.
Given all that has changed since June, grabbing home-court advantage ultimately could be the Thunder's saving grace in a potential rematch with the Spurs.
And this final meeting Thursday night very well could be the contest that decides it.