The pressure is on the San Antonio Spurs to start a new streak.
San Antonio saw its streak of 22 straight playoff appearances snapped last season but is right in the thick of the battle for Western Conference seeding following a solid start to the 2020-21 campaign.
Veteran leaders DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Patty Mills and Rudy Gay have played well in spurts, while a number of talented young playmakers have taken strides in various roles. The result has been a better start than many expected, especially in a challenging Western Conference that features so many superstars.
The Spurs sit at 16-11, which is good enough for the No. 5 seed in the current Western Conference standings.
They now know the second-half schedule they must navigate to make the playoffs again. With that in mind, here is a look at the key information for the team's upcoming slate.
2020-21 Spurs Schedule Details
Second-Half Opener: Spurs vs. Mavericks; March 10 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Championship Odds (FanDuel): +16000 ($100 to win $16,000)
Second-Half Schedule: NBA.com
Portland Trail Blazers (April 16, May 8)
It is fair to suggest the Spurs are not on par with championship contenders such as the Los Angeles Lakers, L.A. Clippers or even Utah Jazz, but games against the Portland Trail Blazers can be something of a measuring stick.
Portland is a surefire playoff contender with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum making up one of the best backcourts in the conference and will provide quite the test for San Antonio's strong defense.
The Spurs already defeated the Trail Blazers during the first half of the season and doing so again would be important for tiebreaking scenarios and overall seeding in the West.
It could also provide confidence for some of San Antonio's young players that this team can hang with some of the better squads the Western Conference has to offer. A trip to the second round is not out of the question for this team depending on seeding and matchups, and taking care of business in head-to-head opportunities against the Trail Blazers will put it in better position to advance.
This game might also present a chance for some of the Spurs players to bolster their individual numbers considering they put up 125 points in the first matchup.
Denver Nuggets (April 7, April 9)
Much of the same logic from the Trail Blazers section applies to showdowns with the Denver Nuggets, as well.
Denver is one of those teams the Spurs figure to battle for positioning in the middle-to-lower portion of the Western Conference playoff bracket, and they already beat the Nuggets in the first half of the season.
Doing so again, much like with Portland, could be the boost they need for a better playoff seed or a tiebreaker.
The Nuggets also represent quite the test considering they reached last season's Western Conference Finals and have plenty of firepower across the floor with Nikola Jokic in the frontcourt and Jamal Murray in the backcourt.
San Antonio will need to be dialed in if it is going to sweep a season series with the Nuggets, and it would send a statement to the rest of the conference as the playoffs approach.
There are two primary things keeping the Spurs afloat in the Western Conference outside of just head coach Gregg Popovich's ability to get the most from his players.
The defense, as has often been the case during Popovich's tenure, is among the league's best and ranks No. 9 in defensive rating, per NBA.com. San Antonio clogs the lane to cut off penetration and swarms to outside shooters, which has allowed it to remain competitive even without a top-notch superstar who can take over games at a moment's notice.
What's more, the offensive balance also stands out.
The Spurs have eight players averaging double-digit scoring figures and are not solely reliant on DeRozan or Aldridge to win games. Rather, Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson, Lonnie Walker IV and others have all impressed for stretches, which allows Popovich to mix-and-match the lineups in an effort to preserve some of his veterans at times.
The combination of a strong defense and balanced offense will be enough for the Spurs to make the playoffs with the expanded play-in tournament in place. The Nos. 7-10 seeds will battle for the final two spots in the traditional bracket this season.
Look for the Spurs to be included in those games.
Final Record Prediction: 38-34 (No. 7 seed in Western Conference)