LOS ANGELES — The San Antonio Spurs head into Staples Center on Tuesday looking to strengthen more than just their playoff seeding in the Western Conference.
The Spurs might have solidified their fourth-place standing with a key victory over the Houston Rockets on Sunday, but they enter Tuesday’s game against the Clippers knowing a tightly bunched Western Conference field has them only three games ahead of ninth-place Denver.
One spot behind the Denver Nuggets are the Clippers, who still hold hopes of gaining their own playoff spot. The Clippers first will have to jump the Nuggets knowing they are two games out of playoff eligibility with five regular-season games remaining.
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So how critical is the situation?
“If we don’t go five for five, we won’t make the playoffs; it’s very simple,” Clippers forward Danilo Gallinari said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “So, even if going five-for-five, I don’t think that percentage-wise for the playoff possibility is good. But we got to go five for five, and I think hoping that other teams lose.”
Despite the potential distraction of Kawhi Leonard’s unknown return from a quadriceps injury that has prevented him from playing all but nine games this season, the Spurs have remained focused.
On Sunday, the Spurs won for the eighth time in 10 games by recording a 100-83 win over the Houston Rockets. LaMarcus Aldridge scored 23 points while San Antonio held Houston to 33.8 percent shooting.
The run has further distanced San Antonio from March 13, when it was in 10th place in the conference and in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in 20 seasons.
On March 13, the Spurs and Clippers had identical 37-30 records. Heading into their Tuesday matchup, the Spurs are 45-32, while the Clippers are 41-36.
“Even when we were down, I knew we were going to come back and be the team we know we can be,” San Antonio forward Rudy Gay told reporters after Sunday’s victory. “We are a very resilient team, a very good team, a very smart team. It took a little time. We’re figuring each other out.”
Gay scored 21 points for the Spurs on Sunday, his first 20-point game since returning from a heel injury at the start of the calendar year.
Leonard is the Spurs’ only injury concern now, but it is a big one.
“I don’t know when he’s going to feel, he and his group are going to feel like they’re ready to go,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told NBA.com.
If there was one consistent theme surrounding the Clippers this season, it was on the injury front.
Point guards Patrick Beverley and Avery Bradley are out for the season. Another point guard in Milos Teodosic is likely done for the season with a plantar fascia tear. Backup point guard Jawun Evans is out with a sports hernia.
Lou Williams continues to lead the Clippers offensively and has been doing it off the bench for the most part. In 16 March games, Williams averaged 21 points, starting just five of those contests. He scored 20 in an 111-104 defeat to the Pacers on Sunday.