(AP) Not long before the San Antonio Spurs were set to tip-off against the Minnesota Timberwolves last weekend, coach Gregg Popovich found out that Manu Ginobili and Marco Belinelli were not going to be available because of injuries.
It was the latest in a series of unexpected obstacles that have gotten in the Spurs’ way during their first title defense since the 2007-08 season.
”Manu was a surprise losing him. Losing Bellie today makes us, you know, a little bit paranoid,” Popovich confessed before the Spurs easily dispatched the lowly Wolves, 108-93.
Paranoid? The Spurs? In January?
The Spurs, who seek their 18th straight win over the Washington Wizards on Tuesday night, have spent almost 20 years turning the NBA’s regular season into nothing more than a six-month warmup for the playoffs.
They manage minutes, develop bench players and set recovery times from injury with an eye not on winning games in the regular season, but making sure the team is adequately prepared and rested for the 2 1/2-month postseason grind.
Popovich has perfected the art of the 82-game ramp-up, never getting overly concerned about how the team is playing in winter so long as they are progressing to where they need to be come spring time. And that’s easy to do when the Spurs also own the best regular season winning percentage in the league over the past decade.
But after the Spurs took their game to heights rarely seen in steam-rolling through the playoffs and beating the Miami Heat for the franchise’s fifth championship last June, they are in the unfamiliar position of chasing the pack.
They are 23-15, good for just seventh in the powerful Western Conference and three games behind fifth-seeded Dallas.
”We had that tough schedule last month, and we put ourselves in a hole. It’s a long season, and it’s time, we’ve got time to fight back,” Tim Duncan said. ”But we’ve got to start now. We’ve got to start focusing, concentrating on racking up the wins no matter where it is whether it’s home or on the road or whoever it’s against.”
Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Tony Parker have all missed big chunks of time with injuries while Ginobili and Belinelli have suffered the nagging, more minor variety.
”If we knew who was out, that would be good,” Popovich said. ”But it’s been someone different every night. If we knew a few guys would be out for three weeks, then you can get into a rhythm with that group. But we haven’t been able to do that because it seems like it’s different people every other game.”
After beating the Timberwolves on Saturday night, the Spurs have won four of their past five games. A win in Washington on Tuesday would give them their first three-game winning streak in more than a month.
Cory Joseph had 19 points in place of Parker in a 101-92 home win Jan. 3 that extended a run versus Washington that dates to the 2005-06 season. The Wizards (25-12) hope to end that skid with their fourth straight home victory after a three-game run overall ended in Sunday’s 120-89 loss at Atlanta.
John Wall scored 15 and Nene added 14 for the Wizards, who were outscored 33-12 in the fourth quarter. Wall also had 15 points in the first meeting with the Spurs, who outscored Washington 23-15 over the final 12 minutes.
"San Antonio is a team that knows how to play the right way," Wall said. "We were right there with those guys until the last five minutes and we’ve got to come back and try to take care of homecourt."