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Roster strains hurt Spurs when it counts most

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The team had been frantically plugging holes from injuries the entire season. Now it appears to be catching up with them. 

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in two decades, the Spurs are learning what it feels like to be desperate for wins in early March.

If there was any sense of desperation in the past, it was based on fear of losing home-court advantage in the playoff race – not losing a playoff slot altogether. But that’s the reality of what feels like a comically unlucky regular season in 2018.

The team has dropped five of the last seven games since returning from the All-Star break, and they’ve lost 10 of the last 13. Kawhi’s absence, coupled with endless injuries, have forced players to adapt to extended roles. And during the toughest stretch of the schedule, fatigue appears to be setting in.

This all comes at a time when the Spurs have virtually no margin for error in one of the tightest battles for Western Conference playoff contention in recent history. The team lost its second in a row Saturday night to Oklahoma City while chasing a Thunder lead for almost the entire 48 minutes. They fell from the fifth seed to the seventh. If they don’t somehow pull off a win Monday in Houston, they could drop down to ninth.

Their success or basic survival in the battle for a playoff spot is contingent upon Kawhi’s return, which, according to ESPN, could happen as early as Thursday. But those expectations can be volatile. The active Spurs have to find some kind of consistency to secure wins—even as lineups continue to change.

The team’s struggles stem mostly from a combination of physical wear and tear, inexperience and lack of clear offensive options. They’re simply not executing down the stretch. In six consecutive losses from Feb. 12 to March 8, the Spurs led in the fourth quarter and made several uncharacteristic mistakes.

When the Spurs would normally consume any hope of their opponents running away with a win, players have been hesitant to shoot wide-open shots. Indecision has also forced shots from tighter quarters. This season, the Spurs take 38.2 percent of their shots within two to four feet of a defender. Last year, they took 31.2 percent of their shots within that distance.

LaMarcus continues to play well, but teams have been working harder to double and triple team him to eliminate the only bonafide closer on the Spurs roster. Aside from Rudy Gay, LaMarcus doesn’t have a physically dominant player to lean on in those situations.

The Thunder seemed to have figured that out on Saturday, holding LaMarcus to 5 of 16 shooting with three turnovers. They did that with Steven Adams in the locker room for most of the game, lost in the third quarter to an ankle injury.

Lack of execution also may have to do with the Spurs’ younger players, like Dejounte Murray and Davis Bertans, getting more playing time when the game is on the line. It could be related to typical crunch-time players, such as Danny Green and PattyMills, feeling the effects of an increased workload throughout the season.

On top of that, LaMarcus and Pau Gasol, the catalysts for the Spurs’ post-heavy offense, both appear to be playing with remnants from earlier injuries. And ESPN’s Michael C. Wright tweeted after the game in Oklahoma City that three players were using seven bags of ice for various injuries in the locker room.

A litany of issues have created a storm that doesn’t appear to be subsiding anytime soon. Unless, of course, “soon” becomes now for Kawhi.

Tweet of the night

Quote of the night

“You’ve got no choice. You can’t give in. If you give in, that shows your character. I don’t think anyone of this team is a quitter.” - LaMarcus Aldridge, on how the team stays motivated to fight through their tough schedule.