After the San Antonio Spurs hosted the Los Angeles Lakers Dec. 12, the season-long injury problems were supposed to be officially over.
Tiago Splitter was back. Tony Parker started following a three-game absence. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili had been afforded a much-needed rest day two days prior. Kawhi Leonard would return the following outing.
At least this unfortunate string happened in November and December when the team could battle through the short-handed days, many theorized. After all, San Antonio had plenty of games to recover any losses.
Nevertheless, this would be the beginning of the Spurs' full-strength title defense. But it didn't last long.
Parker's hamstring flared, causing him to miss five more contests and watch helplessly as Ginobili imploded in clutch situations while replacing him. Ultimately, the Spurs dropped four consecutive games, including back-to-back triple-overtime losses.
|San Antonio Spurs Recent Struggles|
|Portland Trail Blazers||Dec. 15||L 108-95||Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, Splitter|
|Memphis Grizzlies||Dec. 17||L 117-116 (3OT)||Leonard, Parker|
|Portland Trail Blazers||Dec. 19||L 129-119 (3OT)||Leonard, Parker|
|Dallas Mavericks||Dec. 20||L 99-93||Starting Five, Ginobili|
|Los Angeles Clippers||Dec. 22||W 125-118||Leonard|
Note: Patty Mills was also unavailable, but that wasn't a surprise since he hadn't played yet this season.
In addition to Parker's setback, Leonard's original diagnosis of discomfort worsened.
"One of the docs said he's been doing hands for 40 years, and this is the first time he's ever seen this injury," coach Gregg Popovich said, per Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News (subscription required).
At the time of writing, Leonard has missed six games due to various maladies. What's more, Dan McCarney of the Express-News noted Popovich didn't sound particularly confident about a swift return, calling Leonard's injury "very problematic."
Basically, it seems that once a player overcomes his respective issue, another key San Antonio player falls victim to one. And considering the four-game slide, it's worth qualifying how much of a concern the injuries actually are.
Between the absences, losses and eye-rolling performances, the Spurs must've been absolutely demoralized—even if that emotion was merely a reaction to a specific loss.
The major concern, however, is the quickly rising Oklahoma City Thunder, who have won nine of their last 12 games with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant back. Quite obviously, it's simply a matter of time before OKC surpasses New Orleans and Phoenix—and possibly San Antonio.
Consequently, the Spurs would be fighting to distance themselves from the Pelicans and Suns. Was panic mode arriving?
Of course not—stated with an eye-roll.
Right now, Popovich is scheming his way to near-victories with short-handed and fatigued squads. On Dec. 20 against the Dallas Mavericks, the eight-man unit of Boris Diaw, Aron Baynes, Kyle Anderson, Cory Joseph, Marco Belinelli, Jeff Ayres, Matt Bonner and Austin Daye held a lead late in the fourth quarter.
Plus, Danny Green is playing out of his freaking mind. The sharpshooter has connected on 16 of his last 27 three-point attempts and buried a literal handful of late, much-needed triples.
Additionally, Diaw has covered for Duncan, Splitter and Leonard, logging 30-plus minutes 10 times this season and sitting out a grand total of zero games. Last year, Diaw only tallied 15 such games in 79 appearances.
In reality, the only time San Antonio should start worrying is if Leonard is unavailable for the postseason. The small forward is undeniably the team's top perimeter defender, and containing the Stephen Curry-Klay Thompson or Durant-Westbrook combinations without Leonard would be impossible.
But that's four long months away, and the Spurs still hold a three-game advantage on New Orleans and Phoenix in the standings. Parker has once again returned, and he exploded for 26 points on 11-of-18 shooting opposite the Los Angeles Clippers Dec. 22.
The losing streak that was notably influenced by injuries definitely hurt, yet it wasn't debilitating. Though the Spurs' collective health issues are a concern, San Antonio missing the playoffs is not one.
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and accurate as of Dec. 22.