Oklahoma City • The Oklahoma City Thunder haven’t found any shortcuts as they try to climb to the top of the Western Conference.
The Thunder’s path through the postseason lined up so their first three opponents have been the only three teams to win the West since 1998.
It started with the Dallas Mavericks, who were trying to defend their NBA title. Next up was the Los Angeles Lakers, who have won five championships since 2000. In the Western Conference finals, the Thunder will now face the four-time champion San Antonio Spurs.
If the franchise can reach the NBA finals for the first time since losing to Michael Jordan’s Bulls in 1996 as the Seattle SuperSonics, it will be after getting through the cream of the crop out West.
“You go over the last few years, and it’s been the usual suspects at the top and it’s been that way for a reason,” Lakers star Kobe Bryant said, pondering how L.A. could get back to the top after getting eliminated by the Thunder.
Oklahoma City is well on its way to cementing a spot among the West’s elite, improving each season since winning only 23 games after relocating from Seattle in 2008.
“We’re not thinking about the history of the last Western Conference champions,” said Oklahoma City backup center Nazr Mohammed, himself a veteran of the Spurs’ 2005 championship team.
“All we’re thinking about is San Antonio and what needs to be done.”
The series starts Sunday night in San Antonio, with both teams getting the better part of a week of down time to prepare. Both teams took Tuesday off after Oklahoma City finished off a five-game series against the Lakers with a 106-90 victory on Monday night.
The Spurs completed their second straight playoff sweep by beating the L.A. Clippers on Sunday and have won 18 games in a row.
“We are proud of that,” San Antonio sixth man Manu Ginobili said. “It’s not easy to accomplish, but who cares? But now we’re going to face in the conference finals against a very rough, skilled opponent.”
Each team has a speedy, All-Star point guard — San Antonio’s Tony Parker against Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook. Each has a crafty, left-handed sixth man — the Spurs’ Ginobili and the Thunder’s James Harden.
And each has a reserved superstar, Tim Duncan against Kevin Durant. Both offenses can be deadly on the pick and roll.
“They’re tough. They have a good point guard who’s very good in the pick and roll, they have a whole bunch of shooters and obviously a great big man,” Harden said. “These next four days are going to be key. We have to lock in and focus.
“The series switches from the Lakers being a big, physical team to the Spurs with shooters and running the pick and roll very well. We’re going to have to change our mentality a little bit, but I think we’re ready for it.”
Both teams raced through the first round in sweeps, then did well to manage extended waits while their second-round opponents were finishing off seven-game series. The aging Spurs, who got the top seed despite practically giving away a couple of games by resting all their top players, have made the most of their rest all season long.
“This team is good at taking care of our bodies. We will have some good practices where we can stay in shape and everybody is just focused on doing this the right way,” Ginobili said.
The Spurs won the season series 2-1 despite playing all three games without Ginobili, and they raced past Oklahoma City in the final month of the season to claim home-court advantage in the series.
All three meetings were played before roster moves around the trade deadline for both teams, with the Thunder bringing in veteran guard Derek Fisher while San Antonio added Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw.
“The only games they lost is when Pop took all of their guys out,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said.
After stumbling just enough down the stretch to fall out of the Western Conference lead, the Thunder have been back on their game in the playoffs while cutting down significantly on their league-worst 16.3 turnovers per game. In the postseason, they’re averaging an NBA-best 10.7 giveaways.
“We’re in a groove right now,” Harden said. “Guys are playing at their peak and we’re playing at another level as far as not turning the ball over, our defensive mindset and on offense moving the ball.”
Western finals schedule
All games on TNT
Sunday • Oklahoma City at San Antonio, 6:30 p.m.
Tuesday • Oklahoma City at San Antonio, 7 p.m.
May 31 • San Antonio at Oklahoma City, 7 p.m.
June 2 • San Antonio at Oklahoma City, 6:30 p.m.
x-June 4 • Oklahoma City at San Antonio, 7 p.m.
x-June 6 • San Antonio at Oklahoma City, 7 p.m.
x-June 8 • Oklahoma City at San Antonio, 7 p.m.