If the playoffs started today, for the first time in 20 years, the Spurs wouldn't be in

Dan Devine

Entering Monday night without All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, reserve legend Manu Ginobili and the still-sidelined-but-apparently-not-for-long Kawhi Leonard, the San Antonio Spurs honestly had just about no chance of beating the Houston Rockets. Gregg Popovich’s club took a 2-0 lead on a Rudy Gay jumper 49 seconds into the game, but Chris Paul answered with a midranger of his own 26 seconds later, and it was pretty much all downhill from there.

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Houston ripped off a 19-2 run to take command of the game, weathered a late first-quarter surge by San Antonio’s second unit, and led by double-digits for most of the final 33 minutes of the game en route to a 109-93 rout. MVP favorite James Harden led the way with a breezy 28 points, 16 of them in the third to put the game on ice, to go with six rebounds and six assists in 29 minutes, while Chris Paul added 18 points on 8-for-11 shooting with nine assists for the Rockets, who pushed their NBA-best mark to 53-14, two games up on the Golden State Warriors in the race for the No. 1 spot out West.

All but devoid of top-end firepower with Aldridge and Leonard unavailable, the Spurs were led by a pair of guys most fans couldn’t pick out of a lineup — second-year guard Bryn Forbes and rookie Derrick White, each of whom scored 14 points. San Antonio has now lost three straight, five of six, nine of 11 and 11 of 14, a precipitous freefall that’s dropped them to 37-30 on the season.

Gregg Popovich’s Spurs have been in a tailspin since the start of February, and it’s got them on the outside of the Western playoff picture looking in right now. (Getty)
Gregg Popovich’s Spurs have been in a tailspin since the start of February, and it’s got them on the outside of the Western playoff picture looking in right now. (Getty)

That’s the same record that the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets have. The Spurs headed into Monday in eighth place in the West, a half-game up in the loss column on ninth-place Denver and 10th-place Utah. But since all three have the same record now, the rules for multi-team tiebreakers go into effect, meaning the order of the teams gets determined by head-to-head record. Utah’s 5-2 thus far this season against the Nuggets and Spurs combined. Denver’s 4-4 against the Jazz and Spurs. San Antonio’s just 2-5 against Utah and the Nuggets.

That means — for the moment, at least — that the Spurs sit outside the Western Conference’s top eight. Life comes at you fast in the brutally competitive West.

If that feels incredibly strange to you, it should. We haven’t had much experience with that:

Since the 1996-97 season, when a broken foot limited Hall of Fame big man David Robinson to just six games and set the Spurs up to draft another Hall of Fame big man named Tim Duncan, the Spurs have won better than 60 percent of their games in every single regular season. They have made the postseason every year for two straight decades. They have made the Western Conference Finals in half of those years and the NBA Finals in six of them, winning five championships in this glorious span. Right now, though, that storied history feels … well, like history.

This year’s model has been scuffling for the last month and a half, ranking below league-average in points scored and allowed per possession since Feb. 1. San Antonio owns the NBA’s third-worst point differential in “clutch” time — defined as the score being within five points in the final five minutes — in that span, getting outscored by more points in close-and-late situations than any team outside tanking Memphis and feisty-but-bad Brooklyn.

That owes partly to Popovich’s commitment to giving his younger charges, and chiefly second-year starting point guard Dejounte Murray, the chance to learn by doing with wins and losses hanging in the balance. But you can also chalk a healthy amount of it up to San Antonio’s rotation as presently constituted looking like a bunch of planets whose orbits continue to widen and wobble, bit by bit, as they wonder when exactly the sun’s coming back to restore that lovin’ centripetal feeling.

San Antonio’s sun might be back Thursday. Expecting Leonard to just hit the ground running after playing just nine of the Spurs’ first 67 games seems like an awfully big ask, but they’ll need him — and Aldridge, and Murray, and Ginobili, and Gay, and Tony Parker, and Danny Green, and everybody else in silver and black — to get up to speed and into rhythm quickly if San Antonio’s going to get back on the bright side of the bracket and stay there against a brutal upcoming schedule:

Despite a daunting slate and their largely dire recent form, the Spurs don’t figure to go down without a fight. From Tom Orsborn of the San Antonio Express-News:

“Our mindset is to go out tomorrow and make sure we win a game and build some momentum and gain some confidence because it hasn’t been easy,” Pau Gasol said. “It’s not easy to lose under any circumstance, so we have to dig in and trust in each other and go out there and make sure we take care of business at home.

“After that, it’s win out every single night you go out there, and bust your butt, and compete your hardest and hope that’s good enough…to move up.” […]

“Everybody tries to be the best they can be by playoff time,” Popovich said, “and that will be our goal too – to be in the playoffs and be as good as we can possibly be, no matter what the circumstances are.”

The attitude’s admirable, but with just 15 games left in the regular season, four teams — the seventh-seeded Los Angeles Clippers, Jazz, Nuggets and Spurs — vying for two playoff spots, and only two games separating fourth-place (Oklahoma City) from 10th (San Antonio), everything matters, including the Spurs’ circumstances. They need Aldridge back, on a knee healthy enough to carry the offensive burden. They need Leonard back, on a quad strong enough to lock in, anchor and propel. They need Murray’s youthful electricity and Parker’s measured decision-making. They need more, from everywhere, and they need it now.

Nobody in the Spurs’ locker room is pushing the panic button just yet, but it’s getting late early in the lower reaches of the Western bracket. If Popovich can’t get his principals back on the floor, start using them as organizing principles, and get everybody the hell organized, “the Spurs would miss the playoffs if they started today” will stop being an oddly discomforting bit of late-winter science fiction and start being a stunning and unwelcome bit of springtime docudrama unfolding, and sewing uncertainty, in south Texas come mid-April.

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Dan Devine is a writer and editor for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@oath.com or follow him on Twitter!