The San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder are locked in a rousing series with some of the biggest stars in the sport, some of the most raucous crowds in the league and television ratings that are nearing record highs.
The only thing small about these Western Conference finals are the markets that are hosting them.
Game by heart-pounding game, the Spurs and the Thunder are proving that the NBA cannot only survive, but flourish, even when power franchises like the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls have been eliminated.
Kevin Durant and the young guns from Oklahoma City have won two straight to even the series against Tim Duncan and the old-guard Spurs, with Game 5 set for Monday night in San Antonio.
For fans that felt alienated after LeBron James and Chris Bosh left Cleveland and Toronto to sign in Miami and Carmelo Anthony forced a trade from Denver to New York, seeing two franchises capture national attention despite being located in television markets that rank behind Greenville, S.C., is a welcome change.
"We want to get to the place where that question isn't asked," Commissioner David Stern said at a news conference last week. "And for us to mean it and you to believe it. Because no one asks it when you see Green Bay, New Orleans and Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl."
The ability of small-market teams to compete with the big boys was one of the central fronts in the bitter labor dispute that cost the league 16 games, and the new collective bargaining agreement was crafted to level the playing field for everyone from Sacramento to New York and all stops in between.
Charles Barkley may like to make fun of Oklahoma City and San Antonio for not being the most cosmopolitan of locales, but all eyes are on them right now. Through the first four games, ratings for the Western Conference finals on TNT are up 7 percent compared with the 2011 series on ESPN in which Dallas beat the Thunder. TNT says it is on pace for the second-highest rated playoffs in its 28 years of broadcasting the games.
They're seeing Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker breaking ankles on the perimeter, Duncan and Serge Ibaka rattling teeth on screens, Durant and Manu Ginobili drilling impossible shots off one leg while falling to the ground. And both fan bases provide great theater by shaking the walls with full-throated howling in hopes of willing the only show in town one step closer to a title.
"In those cities, that's all they've got," Spurs forward Boris Diaw said. "They're really rooting for this team. You can feel the whole city vibrating and living the playoffs like the players do."
So who needs the Black Mamba when you have the Durantula?
Who is missing deep dish in Wrigleyville when they have Tex-Mex on the River Walk?
And Jack Nicholson may be courtside in Los Angeles, but Lil' Wayne can't even get his hands on a ticket in Oklahoma City.
"It's great for the NBA," said TNT analyst Steve Kerr, who has seen it from all angles as a broadcaster, an executive and a player in markets big (Chicago) and small (San Antonio). "Sometimes people watch because it's the Lakers or the Celtics or the Bulls, big-market traditional teams.
"This is more just about great basketball. It's good for the league to have a system where teams in smaller markets can succeed if they run a strong operation and maybe get a little lucky."
For years, San Antonio has been somewhat of an anomaly, the one small-market team to break through and wrestle a title — or four — away from cash cows like the Lakers, Celtics, Bulls and Mavericks.
Now the Spurs seem to have some company. The Thunder are full of All-Star caliber players who are 24 years old or younger and poised to dominate the West for the foreseeable future.
The Memphis Grizzlies and Indiana Pacers have each made compelling runs in the playoffs over the last two years and teams like Utah and Minnesota have assembled promising young cores.
"I think it's a healthy thing to be able to be a small market like San Antonio or Oklahoma City and do well," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "It bodes well for the league. Everything is not always a big-market deal. It's kind of fun to spread it around, that's for sure.
"But the small markets have to be pretty fortunate in other ways to make that happen, and both Oke City and San Antonio have had pretty good fortune in helping them get to this point."
True, the Spurs got lucky when they won the lottery in 1997 and landed Duncan, and Durant fell into the Thunder's lap during the franchise's final season in Seattle when Portland chose Greg Oden No. 1.
But both franchises have done a superb job of surrounding those superstars with top-flight talent. The Thunder nailed draft picks with Westbrook, Ibaka and James Harden, and GM Sam Presti's acquisition of Kendrick Perkins from Boston last year gave the young team the veteran toughness it needed.
The Spurs hit on low draft picks with Parker and Ginobili, acquired Kawhi Leonard in a draft-night deal and have gotten more out of Diaw and Stephen Jackson than most other teams could.
"I think we look at it as who we are," Spurs GM R.C. Buford said. "If somebody wants to be in front of the bright lights and the glitz, then that's probably not San Antonio. And so, those players probably aren't going to be looking to us, but I don't think that we'd be looking there, as well."
In the coming seasons, the new CBA will make it even tougher for the big-market teams to out-muscle the little guys. Greater revenue sharing and a more punitive luxury tax system are already influencing personnel decisions.
But the problems weren't all wiped away with a few signatures in December. The Lakers and Knicks have revenues that dwarf those of Minnesota and Milwaukee thanks to larger television contracts, bigger sponsorship deals and higher ticket sales. The big cities are also more attractive destinations for players.
"It's still tough," Pacers President Larry Bird said when he was named executive of the year. "We don't drive revenues like the big-market teams. We can't go after $17 million dollar players. We've got to go a different way, and we've got to do it a piece at a time."
Then again, most players, including the impending free agents, are watching from home right now. And no matter where they live — Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Houston — you can bet they all wish they were in San Antonio on Monday night.
"It's helping me grow and that's what my goal was coming into this league was to always be focused and locked in on what I want to do as a player," Durant said of his adopted hometown. "And being here provides me the best environment to do it — the players here, the coaches, the whole organization is first-class. It's perfect."
AP Sports Writer Jeff Latzke and freelance writer Murray Evans in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.
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