The San Antonio Spurs just handed the two-time defending NBA champions their most lopsided loss of the season, and two more top-flight opponents await in a difficult back-to-back next week.
Don’t expect the Spurs to overlook the last-place Orlando Magic in between.
No team has been better at handling the league’s bottom feeders than the Spurs, who look to push their winning streak to six Saturday night as they continue their pursuit of the Western Conference’s top seed.
San Antonio (45-16) has withstood periodic absences from Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili to again hover near the top of the West, where they’re currently just a half-game behind Oklahoma City.
The knock on the Spurs coming into Thursday’s game against Miami had been an ugly record against the NBA’s elite. San Antonio entered just 3-11 against the league’s other six 40-win clubs, but shot 50.6 percent and forced 20 turnovers while cruising to a 111-87 win.
"We needed a game like this," Ginobili said. "We’ve been talking (about it) all season long. Our record was (bad) against the top four teams in the league. So we needed a big one, and today we played well. … It’s one of those wins that really gets you going."
Duncan led the way with 23 points, but it was Leonard who got his coach’s attention while holding LeBron James to 19 points on 6-of-18 shooting and matching a career high with five steals.
"(Leonard) is growing day by day," Gregg Popovich told the league’s official website. "He is starting to feel confident in his role and taking pride in being a defender and rebounder first, then letting his offense come naturally and not thinking about it too much."
Magic coach and former Spurs assistant Jacque Vaughn had his own impressions from the nationally televised rout.
"Impressive, from beginning to end," Vaughn said. "They’ve had a bunch of different lineup changes and it looks like it’s beginning to come together at the right time for them."
San Antonio will face a back-to-back next week at Chicago and at home against Portland, teams that are a combined 3-1 against the Spurs, but a letdown against Orlando (19-44) seems unlikely. Remove Indiana, Houston, the Los Angeles Clippers, the Heat, Thunder, Bulls and Blazers from the equation and Popovich’s team is a combined 41-4 against the league’s other 22 clubs.
That includes a 109-91 rout of the Magic on Nov. 29 – the Spurs’ fifth straight win in the series – despite Parker sitting with a sprained ankle.
San Antonio’s plus-12.7 point differential against sub-.500 teams is the league’s best. It has surrendered 101.4 points per game to teams at or above .500 and just 93.1 to clubs with losing records, the second-largest gap in the league.
It’s hard to imagine the Magic surprising the Spurs, especially considering their league-worst 4-28 road record. Orlando’s lone win away from home in 2014 came Feb. 26 against free-falling Philadelphia, and it hasn’t won a road game against a Western opponent since March 4, 2013, going 0-13 since.
The Magic were halfway to their third win in five games overall against the West on Wednesday, leading Houston 48-41 at halftime. But Orlando fell apart in the final 24 minutes, committing 12 turnovers and allowing the Rockets to shoot 59.0 percent in a 102-89 loss.
The Magic didn’t have Victor Oladipo (general soreness) or Jameer Nelson (illness) against Houston, but both are set to travel to San Antonio.
Vaughn isn’t sure if they’ll play, but is at least keeping a sense of humor about visiting his former team.
"They’re probably the healthiest they’ve been all year," he said. "Great time for us to go see them."