(AP) — 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.

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 three games, ratings for the Western Conference finals are up 15 percent compared to the 2011 series in which Dallas beat the Thunder.

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.



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