State of the Spurs: Tough stretch ahead

One down, four to go.
If the San Antonio Spurs are going to give up the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, this is probably the time they will do it. After beating Denver on Wednesday, the Spurs are one game into the most difficult five-game stretch of their season.

Wednesday’s game began a run against the teams with the five best records in the NBA – Denver, Miami, Oklahoma City, Memphis and the Clippers. The Nuggets game came down to the last possession, but a win is a win and at 54-17 the Spurs remain a game and a half ahead of the Thunder and five and a half games ahead of the Clippers, who San Antonio hosts Friday.
The Spurs don’t mind.
“I think it’s great,” point guard Tony Parker told the San Antonio Express News. “I said after the last game at home, the playoffs have started. It was playoff intensity against Utah. It was playoff intensity against Houston. They needed that win to get in the playoffs. So all of these games are going to be huge for us. Great preparation for the playoffs.”
The schedule lightens up after that, but just barely. The Spurs play the Nuggets again April 10 in Denver, the Lakers April 14 in Los Angeles and the Warriors the next day in Oakland before closing out the regular season at home against the Timberwolves.
It’s a stretch that will test the physical quality of the Spurs’ team, but it will test their psychology just as much. How badly do the Spurs want to be the No. 1 seed in the first place? To what extent do they think it matters? Are they bored by their own clinical excellence?
The next four games may tell us.

Who’s Hot: Tony Parker. Since returning from his ankle injury, Parker is averaging 21 points and 7.7 assists while shooting 50 percent from the floor.

Who’s Not: Manu Ginobili. He’s shooting 29 percent from the field since March 6 and has gone over double figures in scoring in just four of the last nine games.
Three Thoughts
1. Did we get a sneak peek into how the Spurs are going to be eliminated from the playoffs last week in Houston? The Rockets used a good post defender (Omer Asik) on Tim Duncan, and just played him straight up. No denials, no doubles, nothing like that. Kevin McHale just asked the question, “Can you score on Asik?” And the answer, basically, was no. The Rockets won.
I have written in this space before that I thought the Rockets could give the Spurs trouble. They play super fast, they score more than anybody else in the NBA and they have a superstar in James Harden capable of carrying them through a bad night. Now we know they have a post defender capable of handling Duncan without help. Whether it’s the Rockets or somebody else, we may have seen the blueprint.
2. Manu Ginobili’s shooting slump is nothing to worry about.
3. Tony Parker says his ankle is still sore, and is expected to be that way for a while. This is not unsual for his stage of recovery, so it isn’t an indicator the injury is worse that previously thought. It is, however, an indicator the Spurs have no designs on coasting into the playoffs. They were playing well without Parker and if they weren’t worried about being the No. 1 seed, it would have made some sense to just let him rest until the ankle didn’t hurt anymore.
Quotes of the week
“Someone woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me. I said, ‘They’re the defending NBA champions? Are you sure?’ I had no idea they were even looking at me.”
Guard Manu Ginobili, to the Express News, reflecting on draft night in 1999 ,when the Spurs selected him with the 57th pick.
“I didn’t think he earned 17 free throws.”
Tim Duncan after Sunday’s loss to the Rockets, in which the Spurs had entered the game specifically trying to keep Harden, who averages 10 free throws per game, off the foul line. “That didn’t work out very well,” coach Gregg Popovich said.

What’s next?
The playoffs? Once the Spurs make it out of this gauntlet, the regular season is basically over. If the season ended today (which it doesn’t, so, you know) they would play the Los Angeles Lakers in a first-round series. Old v. Old. Compelling.
Tower of Power?

As with all of the previous weeks of this feature, the Spurs have the best record in the Western Conference. Nobody seems to think they could beat the Miami Heat in the Finals, if it comes to that, but it’s hard to make a case anybody else would have a better shot.