In early February, with his San Antonio Spurs dominating the NBA, Gregg Popovich was asked what concerns he might have.
"I'm worried about our fourth-quarter execution," he answered. "We haven't had any close games recently, so I don't know how we'll respond in the clutch."
Think he'd like to have that problem now?
With Tim Duncan missing his ninth straight game following a severe ankle sprain in Detroit on March 20, the Spurs were blasted by the Dallas Mavericks 94-65 on the road Thursday, bearing no resemblance to the team that was favored to win the NBA title just a few weeks ago. In fact, at one point in the fourth quarter, Popovich employed a lineup that included Sean Marks, Nazr Mohammed, Glenn Robinson, Beno Udrih and Mike Wilks. Spurs fans might have tried to adjust their TV sets, wondering who these imposters were.
The putrid performance against the Mavericks showed how important Duncan is to this team's welfare. The Spurs are built around a defensive scheme that funnels the ball toward the baseline, where Duncan awaits. But without its shot blocker in the lineup Thursday, San Antonio gave up countless layups and dunks to a Dallas team that normally relies on jump shots. Popovich was disgusted after watching the Mavericks waltz into the lane at will without any resistance.
Offensively, the Spurs had trouble finding an open shot. Without having to worry about Duncan, the Mavericks stayed at home on the Spurs' shooters, causing an 0-for-12 night from the 3-point line. And with Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker both suffering off nights, San Antonio couldn't score.
Traditionally, the Spurs slowly build a season-long momentum that picks up speed in April. They have always relied on precise execution at both ends of the floor to win, and each year their play improves during the stretch run as familiarity with each other and Popovich's system breeds confidence. They begin to wear down opponents and grind them up – the perfect formula for winning playoff games.
This season has been different. The Spurs have not only been without Duncan but also the now-injured Devin Brown, who'd been a major factor off the bench for most of the season. It's unclear if Brown's back injury will improve in time for him to return. Longtime Spurs forward Malik Rose was traded in February, so the continuity that is not quite there.
As a result, San Antonio is moving backward as it awaits the return of Duncan – which the team is hoping for within 10 days. The Spurs have lost six straight road games but have played well enough at home to maintain their lead in the Southwest Division. And while they're just three games behind Phoenix in the loss column for the league's best record, Popovich has no designs on catching the Suns. He's only worried about his club's play.
As quickly as things turned south for San Antonio, its fortunes can rapidly change for the better. Popovich would like to get Duncan back for the final three to five regular-season games in order to tune him up for the playoffs. When Duncan returns, the rotation will fall back into place and the Spurs can return to who they are – a team that defends, gets open shots and dominates in the paint. It may not be easy, but they have enough experience together to turn things around quickly.
Of course, that's a big "if." Duncan has rolled the same ankle three times this season, and there's no guarantee that he'll stay healthy through an extended playoff run.
In other words, Popovich has plenty to worry about.