INDIANAPOLIS — Four days ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder was making a push to lock up home-court advantage through the NBA Finals.
Today, the team is hanging on to the top seed in the Western Conference by a thread.
As the Thunder prepares to take on Indiana on Friday night inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse, it must do so with rising pressure to win while San Antonio breathes down its neck.
The Spurs are now just a game behind the Thunder for the conference's best record. They're the hottest team in basketball, having won nine straight. They have the luxury of having two more games than the Thunder remaining on their schedule. And, most significantly, they already own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Thunder after winning the three-game regular season series 2-1.
Suddenly, a top seed that looked like a certainty for the Thunder a week ago has become very much in doubt. Now, more than ever, the Thunder's mantra of “one game at a time” will be put to the test, because every one from here out is of grave importance and the question has become how will the Thunder respond?
A lot is riding on a finishing strong.
“With them, because they're so young, a lot of it has to do with securing home-court advantage,” Cleveland coach Byron Scott said of the Thunder's championship hopes. “If they secure home-court advantage, they're going to be tough for any Western team to beat in a seven-game series.”
Two straight losses to Memphis on Monday night and Miami on Wednesday have opened the door for the Spurs to catch the Thunder. At any other time, a two-game losing streak is nothing to worry over. But given the juncture of the season and the Spurs' winning streak, the Thunder must absolutely get back on track against the Pacers.
Oklahoma City hasn't lost three consecutive games this season, which is a reason to believe the Thunder can indeed right its ship right away. The Thunder's only other two-game skid came back on Jan. 2 and 3. Since that second loss on Jan. 3 to Portland, OKC has gone 11-1 after suffering a defeat.
The Thunder also is 11-4 against Eastern Conference teams and swept last year's two-game series with the Pacers.
But seven of the Thunder's final 12 games are on the road, including a potentially fatal five-game road trip from April 14-22. Meanwhile, the Spurs will play eight of their final 14 games at home.
Oddly enough, though, one factor that possibly could assist the Thunder in securing home-court advantage is, of all things, the Spurs.
San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich admits to having little concern about his team's seeding, and the future Hall of Fame coach has proved time and time again that he will sacrifice seeding to rest his players for the postseason.
“We've been in both situations,” Popovich said. “We've had the top seed and won. We've had the top seed and gotten beat in the first round. And we've been lower and won. So I've learned over the years it's more about what kind of a rhythm you have going into the playoffs, how much the team trusts and believes in itself and health. Those things have a lot more to do with it than where you're seeded.”
Popovich, however, concedes that having a game seven at home is a huge help.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks echoes Popovich's sentiments. But as a younger, less battle-tested team, the Thunder might need home-court advantage more than the Spurs.
“It would be great to have, but it's not something that I have one time talked to the team about,” Brooks said. “We just focus on each game. If we end up No. 1 great. If we end up 2, we still have to go through a lot of teams to get to where we want to get to. And everybody feels the same way in this league.”