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23 games, 5 burning questions

February 21,2018 01:23

For the non-math majors out there: He has missed 50 games. Fifty. 5-0. Leonard is out indefinitely (again) while making his way back from tendinopathy in his right quadriceps. The plan has always been for Leonard to return before the end of the regular ...and more »

Photo: Eric Gay, STF / Associated Press

San Antonio Spurs guard Danny Green, right, stands at the bench with injured teammates Kawhi Leonard, second from left, and Rudy Gay, center, during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Indiana Pacers, Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018, in San Antonio. Indiana won 94-86. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
San Antonio Spurs guard Danny Green, right, stands at the bench...

On Thursday afternoon, the Spurs’ charter plane will lift off from San Antonio International Airport, bound for Denver.
It will be the first day of the rest of their season.
The All-Star break in the metaphorical rearview, the Spurs find themselves in an unaccustomed position. They are in third place in the Western Conference, yet over the season’s final 23 games they will have to fight simply to keep themselves in the playoff hunt.
Here are five questions, the answers to which could set the course for the Spurs’ stretch run:
1. I mean, seriously, what’s the deal with Kawhi Leonard?
For much of the season to date, Kawhi has been more like Ka-who? The Spurs’ best player, erstwhile MVP candidate and All-Star dynamo who makes them a title contender has appeared in nine games this season.
Nine. Out of 59. For the non-math majors out there: He has missed 50 games. Fifty. 5-0.
Leonard is out indefinitely (again) while making his way back from tendinopathy in his right quadriceps. The plan has always been for Leonard to return before the end of the regular season.
If that’s the case, he is running out of time.
The Spurs’ fortunes are undoubtedly tied to improvement in Leonard’s quadriceps. If he can somehow return to full strength in time to get in playoff shape, the Spurs will have a chance to make a deep postseason run. If not, it’s going to be a scrape simply to qualify for the playoffs.
2. Yeah, but the Spurs are going to win 50 games again because they always do, right?
Not so fast. It is true the Spurs have won 50 games for 18 consecutive seasons, an NBA record that would have been extended by two had the 1998-99 campaign not been shortened by lockout.
The Spurs are 35-24 so far this season, needing to go 15-8 the rest of the way to attain that magic mark. On paper, it seems doable.
The uncertainty surrounding Leonard, along with a closing schedule that rates as the league’s toughest, could conspire to put an end to that streak. Remember, the Spurs can only log eight more losses and still hit the 50-win mark. Their remaining slate includes two games apiece against West frontrunners Houston and Golden State, a home-and-home with Oklahoma City, a trip to newly revitalized Cleveland and another game against a dangerous Minnesota team.
The Spurs’ margin for error is slim, and 18 of their final 23 opponents boast winning records. The path to 50 wins goes through a slew of good teams, and this injury-marred Spurs team might not be up to the task.
3. OK but the playoffs aren’t in doubt, right? Come on, get serious.
It seems odd to talk about a team in third place with 23 games to go as a playoff maybe, but that’s the situation. The Spurs will begin play Friday in Denver a game up on Minnesota in the loss column. Behind the fourth-place Timberwolves are a logjam of five teams with 26 losses. That includes the Los Angeles Clippers, currently out of the playoff picture in ninth place.
Put another way: Had the Spurs dropped three more games before the All-Star break, they would be sitting in 10th.
It’s probably too early to say the Spurs’ string of 20 consecutive playoff bids is in jeopardy, but it would be folly to take it for granted.
4. Are the Spurs really planning to make their stretch-run push with a 21-year-old at point guard?
Yes, and it is among the most intriguing non-injury storylines around the club. Before a Jan. 21 loss to Indiana, coach Gregg Popovich replaced Hall of Fame point guard Tony Parker with second-year player Dejounte Murray in the starting lineup.
In the 10 games since, Murray has averaged 10.8 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists.
At 6-foot-5, Murray possesses size, length, defensive prowess and athletic ability superior to the 35-year-old Parker. What Murray doesn’t have yet is Parker’s command of the Spurs’ offense and vast playoff experience honed by 17 NBA seasons.
How Popovich toggles both point guards and their skill sets as the Spurs fight for the postseason will be a fascinating watch.
5. What is the best- and worst-case scenarios for the Spurs heading down the stretch? Please keep it realistic.
Best case, Leonard comes back soon, the Spurs also welcome the return of injured backup Rudy Gay, and the entire gang gets back together in time to develop chemistry for the playoffs. They enter April as a dangerous third seed powerful enough to make another run to the Western Conference finals.
Worst case, Leonard’s injury proves too stubborn for him to return this season, the remaining Spurs expend all their energy fighting just to make the postseason, and it all comes down to a make-or-break final game at New Orleans, a prospect that should spook history-minded fans.
In 2014-15, the Spurs needed a road victory over the Pelicans in the finale to secure the West’s No. 2 seed after a rough-and-tumble regular season. Instead, they lost and dropped to sixth, setting the stage for a first-round ouster against the Clippers.
Could this season’s final game in the Crescent City come with even more dire stakes? That’s a burning question best saved for another day.

Jeff McDonald is a San Antonio Express-News staff writer. Read more of his stories here. | Jmcdonald@express-news.net | @JMcDonald_SAEN

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