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Spurs rounding into contending form

To call them a "dark horse" would be demeaning, but the Spurs will still attempt to do something they've never done in franchise history, winning multiple playoff series without home court advantage on the way to a title.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

I have expressed a healthy dose of skepticism about the Spurs this year. I've found it hard to take them seriously as a contender when they've dropped home games to the Lakers and Pistons, and lost to the Knicks and the Clippers without Blake Griffin. It's been a season of one step forward, two steps back. They haven't beaten a good Western team on the road since early January. But I must admit, March has been an eye-opener. Not just their thumping of the flagging Hawks on Sunday but how they played against Cleveland the week before.

They've picked themselves off the mat in sections. First Kawhi Leonard came to life, after recovering from his hand injury and then regaining his legs and timing. Then came Tony Parker, whose hamstring took a month to heal and another month to feel back to normal. Tiago Splitter was next in line, his calf no longer an issue and reinserted back into the staring lineup to provide interior defense. The Spurs starting five are destroying the league as a unit, the spacing issues of Tim Duncan/Splitter overcome by Parker's regained burst and Leonard's new play-making dimension. Now we're seeing a spark from Boris Diaw, who's threatening to be this generation's Robert Horry. If Diaw and Marco Belinelli can become reliable outlets, the bench will stabilize at last.

Really the only missing piece left on this puzzle is what to do about the backup point guard. Pop seems inclined to stay with Patty Mills, partly out of loyalty for last year's Finals heroics and partly because the threat of his shooting spaces the floor better for everyone else. Objectively speaking, Mills is contributing maybe once every six or seven games and isn't doing much to deserve minutes. Cory Joseph has gone in the tank ever since losing his rotation job but he's the more complete player, better at virtually every basketball skill but three-point shooting. If Mills isn't shooting then he isn't contributing and Joseph takes less off the table. One way or another, it's the last leak in the dike for Pop to plug.

So of course I feel better about their chances than I did before. It'd be stupid not to. The Spurs are peaking at the right time, unlike so many battered and broken would-be contenders across both conferences. Right now they're playing as well as anyone in the league outside of the Warriors, so yes, they're definitely contenders.

There lies the rub though. It's almost a certainty the Spurs will have overcome the Warriors on the road to get where they want to go, and right now, they can't count on home court advantage even in the first round. This franchise has overcome a lot of obstacles on the way to five championships, but doing what the 1995 Rockets did, winning a title even though they were the underdog in every round, that would be their greatest challenge ever. I need to see them beat some people on the road between now and the playoffs.

I'm still dubious, but I no longer think it's impossible.