Even without Tony Parker, the San Antonio Spurs still occupy the top position in the Western Conference. But curious results lately against mediocre teams suggest that spot is far from safe.
The Spurs hope to correct their issues and welcome back their starting forwards as they seek their first season sweep of the visiting Dallas Mavericks in 15 years Thursday night.
San Antonio (49-16) has won four in a row in the series and eight of 10 but hasn't won all four meetings in a season since 1997-98.
The Spurs won this season's three meetings by an average of 23.0 points, but they don't currently resemble the team that was responsible for those blowouts. It initially appeared as though they would weather the storm minus Parker, winning the first two games without him by a combined 57 points after he sprained his ankle March 1.
Since those victories, they've sandwiched a win over Oklahoma City on Monday with losses to sub-.500 teams Portland and Minnesota by a total of 54 points. San Antonio remains slightly ahead of the Thunder for the West's top seed, but that spot seems less than secure with Parker still expected to miss a few more weeks along with Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard battling sore knees.
Neither Duncan nor Leonard traveled to Minnesota on Tuesday as the Spurs lost 107-83. They committed 17 turnovers and shot 35.4 percent against a Timberwolves team which entered with a West-low 21 victories.
"We've got to get things together and go back to who we were, because it's happening too often now," said Manu Ginobili, who has shot 33.3 percent over the last three games and 3 for 15 from 3-point range.
The Spurs could be in better shape Thursday at home, where they've won 22 of 24. Plus, Duncan and Leonard could be back after sitting out Tuesday as the team played on a second consecutive night.
Duncan missed the last meeting with the Mavericks but averaged 16.5 points in the other two while helping limit Dirk Nowitzki to eight points in both.
Nowitzki has helped Dallas match a season high with four consecutive victories, averaging 17.3 points on 51.8 percent shooting and 8.0 rebounds.
The Mavericks (30-33) hope their recent push isn't coming too late as they seek a 13th straight playoff appearance, but they remain 10th in the West.
"We know time is short, and urgency is high," coach Rick Carlisle said after Dallas beat Milwaukee 115-108 on Tuesday for a season-best third straight road win.
"We're going to let it all hang out. We're going to throw the kitchen sink at everybody, and we're just going to hit every arena with guns blazing. That's just how it's got to be.
Vince Carter has totaled 45 points over the last two games as Dallas improved to 8-2 when he scores at least 20. Carter has shot 56.7 percent from the field in the past six games, including 10 for 13 from 3-point range over the last three.
"He's been fun to watch all year," Nowitzki told the team's official website. "He's been great off the bench. To me, I know our record isn't that great, but he's probably in talks for Sixth Man of the Year. That's how good he's been for us."
Shawn Marion has missed three consecutive games with a left calf contusion and is listed as day-to-day. He may not be a huge loss against the Spurs as he was 3 of 16 from the field in the teams' first three meetings.
San Antonio hit 51.4 percent of its 3-pointers in those games while averaging 27.7 assists, but Parker played in all three.