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The Spurs are the league’s best team with the game on the line

The Spurs don’t quite look the part of a contender yet, but they’ve reeled off all these wins by being, in a word, clutch.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Dallas Mavericks Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Spurs are in the midst of a new narrative, an expectedly weird first chapter without their franchise bedrock. To watch them on either side of the ball early on is to see a group of guys improvising, coping, and building chemistry in real time, and it hasn't always been pretty.

San Antonio’s currently 13th in the league in defensive rating, a precipitous drop from last year’s historically dominant D. The Duncan/Pau trade-off has strained rotations and resulted in an uncharacteristic frequency of breakdowns and open looks for opponents. Offensively they’re better — sixth in Off Rtg -- but still seeking an identity, still figuring out how they can best feature superstar Kawhi Leonard. The team’s net rating of 4.8 is OK, but it’s not quite in line with a team on pace for 65-66 wins and well below the other top teams in the West (the 17-3 Warriors are a +12.7 and the 16-5 Clippers are +10.5).

And yet, they are racking up those wins. At 16-4, they have the second-best record in the NBA. They’re 11-0 on the road (five wins off from the best road winning streak of all time), and have done so while routinely sitting key players (either for rest or out of injury).

So what’s the deal? Part of the reason the Spurs have outplayed their expected record of 13-7 is elite performance in the closing moments of close games. By almost every metric, they’ve been the NBA’s best ‘clutch’ team.

When within five points of their opponent in the last five minutes of the game, the Spurs are 12-2. Only the Warriors (6-1) can match that percentage, but they’re still second to San Antonio in outscoring opponents during clutch time. The Spurs have an offensive rating of 134.1 and a defensive rating of 91, a net positive of 43 points per 100 possessions.

Those numbers are even more remarkable when you remember a couple of the game-closing implosions we’ve seen, most notably against Sacramento, when the Kings almost erased an 18-point lead in the final three minutes against the San Antonio reserves.

But the Spurs have remained resilient. They held onto leads against feisty Lakers, Rockets and Celtics teams on the road, and came up with the right combination of shots and stops to win in Charlotte.

Lineups and rotations have been all over the place in these first 20 games, but they’ve allowed Pop to be a bit more flexible in who he closes games with. He hasnt shied away from benching players like Parker and Gasol late in order to match up better with opposing teams.

As with everything, luck almost certainly plays a part. The Spurs have pulled down offensive rebounds at a much higher rate (30.8%) than they do the rest of the game. They’ve also been way more efficient with their three-point shooting, hitting a second-best 43.5% of them.

You could argue they simply sharpen their execution when it counts. That might help explain San Antonio being one of the best at holding onto the ball and at forcing opponents to turn it over in the last five minutes.

But there are actually a handful of healthy Spurs habits that have carried over into how they close games. They’re one of the best teams in the league and not putting opponents on the line, and give up the second-lowest opponent FT attempts in clutch moments. The mid-range is a big part of their offense, and they consequently get a lot of their clutch points from there.

They also have one of the league’s best players off the catch in Kawhi Leonard, so it made sense for them to turn to him in the final seconds of the game against Washington on Friday night.

The numbers would say that San Antonio is due for a slight regression in its record soon enough, but it’s possible that their end-game mettle is more than just a mirage.