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SPORTS: Oklahoma City Thunder

Home Stretch Presents Thunder With Golden Opportunity

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OKLAHOMA CITY -

Oklahoma City's remaining schedule might not be the most appealing for fans but the importance of it should more than make up for the low level of competition.

The Thunder currently sits 1.5 games back of the San Antonio Spurs for the top spot in the Western Conference standings. Naturally, the winner of the conference gets the all-important home-court advantage come playoff time and that could be paramount for the Thunder if it wishes to repeat last season's feat of reaching the NBA Finals.

Take this for example: Oklahoma City has the NBA's fourth best home record at 31-5. The others: Denver and Miami are tied with 32-3 marks, while the Spurs have gone 30-4.

OKC could realistically face all three in the playoffs and home court could be vital given the Thunder's struggles against top-tier competition this season and questionable 21-14 record away from The Peake.

Should the standings remain the same, the Thunder would be giving up home-court advantage in the Western Conference Finals in all likelihood to the Spurs and then presumably the Heat in the Finals.

But OKC has a chance to improve on that position and needs to take advantage.

The Thunder already missed a chance to catch the Spurs when point guard Tony Parker missed nearly a month with an injury but the late-season schedule presents Oklahoma City with another opportunity.

The Thunder's stretch to end the regular season isn't all that daunting and the team has to make the most of it. Starting with Friday's win at Orlando and Sunday's victory against Portland, the Thunder's upcoming stretch shapes up nicely for a sizable winning streak if OKC can take care of business.

The Thunder's next three opponents are the Wizards (26-44) and then road trips at Minnesota (24-44) and Milwaukee (34-35). In fact, in Oklahoma City's remaining 11 games there likely won't be one in which the Thunder isn't favored.

The toughest remaining portion is a three-game stretch against San Antonio, Indiana and New York; the Spurs and Knicks have to come to the Thunderdome.

Then the Thunder wraps things up with a five-game slate against the tanking Utah Jazz, Golden State, Portland, Sacramento and Milwaukee again. It's not unrealistic to think Oklahoma City can end the season on a 13-game winning streak.

Adding to the intrigue is the difficulty of San Antonio's finish. The Spurs remaining schedule is the second most difficult in the NBA.

The Spurs' brutal stretch started with a one-point loss at Houston on Sunday but that's just the beginning. Their next four games are as follows: vs. Nuggets, vs. Clippers, vs. Heat and at Memphis.

Ouch.

The remainder of the schedule includes trips to Oklahoma City, Denver, Golden State and the L.A. Lakers with an underrated home game against Atlanta.

But even games that appear easy on paper might not be for San Antonio because of Gregg Popovich's tendency to sit key players for rest, making contests against the Magic, Sacramento and Minnesota toss-ups if he continues the trend, although it's unlikely given the point in the season.

To sum it all up, making up a 1.5-game deficit in the standings is far from out of the question.

The playoffs are still weeks away, but the home stretch could ultimately determine the fate of the Thunder's season as the team fights for all-important home court advantage.

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