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Spurs clinch 21st straight playoff berth with win over Kings

It didn’t come easy, but not much has this season.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The summers in San Antonio are long by every meaningful standard but one: basketball. For two decades, the cool exhale emanating from the AT&T Center (and the Alamodome before that) has staved off the South Texas heat well into April, May and, occasionally, June. It is one of the more extraordinary streaks in American sports, and one that will endure after a 98-85 victory over the Kings: for the 21st straight season, the Spurs are headed to the playoffs.

It didn’t always look like that’d be the case — not when they fell to 10th place in mid-March and not even for much of Monday night against an inexperienced, 26-win Kings team. Fans that might have had one eye on the other matchups in the Western Conference were instead sweating open looks from the elbow for Willie Cauley-Stein, De’Aaron Fox pull-up three-pointers, and the bone-crushing screens of Jack Cooley. The Kings led 50-41 at halftime, and didn’t trail at all until the fourth quarter as the Spurs dealt with a rare off night from LaMarcus Aldridge (15 points on 19 shots).

Beginning their penultimate game of the regular season with a new starting lineup, the 25th different iteration of 2017-18, probably didn’t help. With Pau Gasol taking Kyle Anderson’s place, a team that feeds off continuity and familiarity found itself once again working through a new, unfamiliar set of rotations in the first half, and the overall chemistry on the floor seemed to take a hit.

Those that have been following along with the 2017-18 Spurs will be familiar with the game’s low points: empty drive-and-kicks; contested jumpers; possessions that did not go from Good To Great; five bodies on the floor moving independently of one another rather in concert. Every issue is magnified when Aldridge isn’t flexing to the fullest on the left block.

To paraphrase Rhys Hughes’ Nowhere Near Milkwood, muscles mean nothing when the heart that pumps them blood no longer beats, and the Spurs still have that source of vitality on their bench — even at the age of forty. For the second game in a row, and for more or less the millionth time in his career, Manu Ginobili’s tone-setting performance made all the difference. He became just the fourth player in his forties (Jordan, Malone and Stockton the other three) to put up 17 points, six rebounds and five assists in a game, offering the usual batch of hustle plays and bodily sacrifice that we should never take for granted, especially now. Among his many un-forty-like moments:

The Argentine was part of a bench effort that outscored Sacramento’s reserves 58-31. Rudy Gay had a team-high 18 points against his former squad, doing much of his damage in and around the paint. He’s averaged 16.4 points over his last five games, and is looking more and more like the complementary offensive punch that the Spurs will desperately need in the playoffs.

Bryn Forbes hasn’t even appeared on all five of those games, picking up a DNP-CD against Oklahoma City. On Monday, he proved how important he can still be. The second-year guard had a team-high plus-25 in his 19 minutes of playing time, the most he’s seen in about a month. He had 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting and gave the team its first lead of the game off a transition basket in the fourth quarter.

Forbes’ biggest impact is when his shot is falling — he’s third on the team in points per touch precisely because of his mandate to catch the ball and produce. That said, just like any Spur, he doesn’t stay on the floor if not for the improved effort he puts up defensively on games like this. It’s something Ginobili pointed out after the game.

Ginobili’s heroics and the timely production of journeymen and role players have become familiar sights in San Antonio through the years. So, too, have playoff appearances. It’s good to see certain traditions continue.

A few closing notes...

Tony’s continued struggles

Anything can happen, but Parker’s numbers over the past 13 games don’t seem to suggest he’s got a similar playoff run to last season’s in him: 3.6 points per game on 27.6% FG. Eek.

Rudy, on the evergreen play of Manu Ginobili

“I don’t know man. I think I need to get a blood transfusion from him sometime... When your body ages, your mind tends to take over. He’s one of the smartest basketball players I’ve ever played with. Obviously he’s still in great shape, but you can see... being with him every day... how well he thinks the game.”

Pop, pre-game, on what’s made this season enjoyable

“A lot of guys have really progressed, including a couple of guys we got on the G-League team. They’re doing a great job. We’ve all been frustrated because we wanted to pick up where we left off last year and that didn’t happen for all the reasons we know. But life goes on and I think under the circumstances we’ve done a wonderful job being in this position. And hopefully we finish it the right way and get in the playoffs. We’ll see.”

Pop on how special it is to secure his 21st postseason berth

[without smiling] “Oh, it’s wonderful.” [turns around and exits presser]