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By Jim Brighters, NBA Editor - Archive - Email
Time to worry about the Spurs
Gregg Popovich The Spurs could miss the postseason in the ultra-loaded Western Conference.
Philadelphia, PA ( - We take things for granted, and not necessarily in a bad way.

One of the things we as an NBA world have taken for granted is the greatness of the San Antonio Spurs, though is it actually taking it for granted when this group has been so successful for so long? They've earned so much of our respect that no matter what, we universally agree they'll always be fine.

Though that concession comes with an important caveat - so long as Pop patrols the sideline, Timmy patrols the paint, Tony patrols the point and Manu patrols the bench.

All pegs are in place for San Antonio, yet is it fair to question the Spurs now as they've lost five of their last six, including three of those at home?

They are 18-12, which is respectable, but that's seventh in the Western Conference. They are two games out of the eighth spot in the conference and three from being lottery-bound.

Can you believe that?

Are the Spurs really in danger of missing the playoffs?

At this stage of the game, it's too early to make any judgments, but the reality is, yes, they could miss the postseason in the ultra-loaded Western Conference.

Nothing is a guarantee in the west. One minute, the Phoenix Suns look dreadful and destined for a return to the lottery. Now, they've won four straight and are semi-comfortably a game ahead in the race for the eighth seed.

The Oklahoma City Thunder made up a 5 1/2-game deficit for the final spot in less than two weeks when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook finally played together.

At the heart of the problem is that the Spurs aren't built to battle for a postseason berth - they are built to contend for titles. There's a huge difference.

Head coach Gregg Popovich has been able to maximize his players' performances in the postseason so brilliantly because he's been able to rest his aging guys during the regular season. The Spurs are older than the "Golden Girls" cast, so that's both wise and necessary.

Tim Duncan (38), Manu Ginobili (37), Matt Bonner (34), Boris Diaw (32) and Tony Parker (32) are not children. On top of counting the inner rings, or driver's license showing their age, this group has a lot of tread on the tires from prolonged runs in the playoffs.

Pop has strategically benched them throughout recent seasons. The players need it and Popovich could afford to do it considering the Spurs were always near the top of the standings.

If the Spurs remain in a three- or four-team hodgepodge for the final two spots out West for the remainder of the season, one game makes the difference. Can Popovich sit Duncan, et al considering the value of each contest?

Hard to say. Pop's a mad genius -- equal parts mad, equal parts genius. I still think he'll sit his guys, but there's nothing guaranteed to these Spurs.

That's possibly another major issue facing San Antonio and Popovich brought it up after a disappointing Christmas Day loss at home to the Thunder, who were without Durant.

"I think we floated around like we're entitled, so that was disappointing," he said.

That's a new dilemma for the Spurs. Never during this epic run of titles would anyone believe the Spurs felt "entitled" to anything. Their professionalism is the thing of legend. Maybe it's not what's going on with the Spurs, but there is something missing from this group. Perhaps it's a hunger issue, or it could be injuries.

Parker has missed time and Patty Mills, who was huge in the championship run, hasn't played yet, although he's clear for 5-on-5 work.

The big setback is Kawhi Leonard. His hand is in bad shape and there's no timetable for return.

"Of course Kawhi is huge for us. He was the MVP of last season's Finals. We need him," Ginobili said after the Thunder loss. "But they were missing Durant. No excuses."

There are no excuses for the Spurs, but there's reality. Age could be catching up. That seemed like a far-fetched problem entering the season after they steam-rolled the Miami Heat in the Finals. Watching them dissect the Heat like terminal Kermits was breathtaking. We didn't want to see it end, nor would a loss to Father Time be expected. But, Father Time is undefeated as they say. No one wanted to believe it after the precision we watched in June.

Injuries aren't excuses, they're explanations. The core group of Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, Leonard, Diaw and Danny Green haven't spent much time together on the floor.

Duncan's play has been tremendous, but his minutes have been high during December. He has sat out four times since the start of the month, but of the 10 games he's played in December, he's logged over 32 minutes eight times and over 39 minutes three times.

To be fair, there were two triple-overtime marathons in there, but that's still a heavy workload for a 38-year-old.

"The sad part is, Tim Duncan comes out and plays every night. We can't find a group around him that can consistently compete and execute," Pop said on Thursday. "It's got nothing to do with schedule and injuries."

Every schedule for a Western Conference team is brutal. Almost every team is already hampered by injuries.

The Spurs just aren't themselves right now. There's plenty of time to remedy it, but their current plight is something to keep an eye on. Nagging injuries don't get any better for guys in their 30s. Trust me, I can't sit up straight anymore.

If Popovich can't get these guys some rest throughout the season, the Spurs' chances at a first-ever repeat could be in jeopardy. Fighting for a playoff berth is no way for this team to prepare for a title defense. They'll have nothing in the postseason.

Pop and company have earned our faith. I believe they'll get it all together, but there's no reason to take anything for granted when it comes to the Spurs and the Western Conference.


- Resting Kobe Bryant wasn't a masterful stroke of genius, it was common sense. Not only is Bryant 36 years of age, and coming off two major leg injuries a year ago, but over his last seven games, he's shooting a roasting- hot 31.6 percent from the field. Plus, Bryant's shooting percentage has declined over the last four games from 35 percent to 26.7 percent. The problem is, sitting Kobe frequently isn't a great plan since there's no long-term youngsters to take a look at and build for the future.

- Anderson Varejao's absence isn't quite crippling for the Cavaliers. They can go small with Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson in the middle, but they'll need a more stable, true big man at some point.

- Maybe Jermaine O'Neal will have a bidding war for his service. Most assume he'll go to the Dallas Mavericks, who also need a true pivot man, but the Cavs should inquire. I imagine Kosta Koufos will be on Cleveland's list as well.

- I'm very happy to see that John Wall is ahead of Kyrie Irving in All-Star voting. Same goes for Marc Gasol in the Western Conference. It's early returns, but this is an encouraging start.

- Josh Smith made the easy choice. More money, starting role, playing with his best friend and playing for a title made the Houston Rockets the obvious landing spot.

- Movie moment - I loved sitting around the dinner table with my family on Christmas Eve talking about their favorite movies of the year. Sure, I saw one movie in the theater - "Planes: Fire & Rescue 2," but it was comforting knowing my father saw, and liked, "Gone Girl" and "St. Vincent." He's the same man who didn't see a movie in the theater from "Dragnet" to "Charlie Wilson's War," a span of 20 years, and now he's the family Ebert.

- TV moment - New record - SIX viewings of "A Christmas Story" this year. "You used all the glue on purpose!"

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