It's time to fear the Spurs again

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By HUNTER KOSSODO
College Contributor Network

It's almost April, and just like every year around this time, the San Antonio Spurs have yet again resurfaced as the team no one wants to match up against in the playoffs.

It sounds like the same old story but there were some new twists and turns for the Spurs this season that made it look like they were in for some rough sailing.

From November through January, the Spurs had to go considerable stretches without Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, or Tiago Splitter. The injury bug biting them in the ass combined with Gregg Popovich's penchant of sitting Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili out a game every now and then led to the Spurs going into the New Year with just six losses fewer than they had the entire previous season.

No one was panicking by the All-Star break because by then Parker's hamstring healed, as did Leonard's right hand and Splitter's calf and the Spurs were 14-5 in 2015. As the Rockets, Thunder, Blazers and Clippers lost key players to injury, the Spurs clawed themselves right back in the mix to get a home series in the playoffs.

San Antonio has won 10 of its last 12, and no team in the NBA has been better than the Spurs during this hot streak. Since February 27, when they beat the Kings to kick off this nice run, the Spurs are tops in the NBA with over 112 points scored per game on nearly 50 percent shooting and a win margin of 13 points on average. Their three-point percentage, free throw percentage, assist, steals and block numbers are also among the best in the league and they've been excellent in limiting turnovers.

This is all despite San Antonio having gone without Ginobili for the past four games with a sprained ankle, and when he comes back the Spurs' offense will be that much more potent.

Duncan and, when he's healthy, Leonard have been the constants for this team, but this great month the Spurs are having coincides with Parker coming back to form, and that's no coincidence. Since that game in Sacramento, Parker is averaging 18.6 points and 5 assists per game. Maybe Russell Westbrook is spoiling us with the numbers he's getting, but those are nice stats for a 32-year-old who doesn't play above the rim, gets most of his points inside the three-point arc and is in an offense where everyone is expected to move the ball.

With just a little over a dozen games left in the season, San Antonio is just a couple games behind overtaking Houston, Portland and the Clippers for the third seed, and the Spurs are by far the healthier team of the four.

Against the Eastern Conference-leading Atlanta Hawks, who have been trying to take the crown from the Spurs as the ball-moving, pace-and-space kings of the NBA this season, the Spurs gave former Popovich assistant Mike Budenholzer's team a crash course with 30 total assists en route to a 114-95 drubbing in Atlanta, where the Hawks had a 30-4 record before the game. Marco Belinelli, who missed 11 straight games in January, had 13 points off the bench and Splitter scored a season-high 23.

So, as the Spurs put it together as the season winds down, what does it mean in the big picture? Well, with Golden State and Memphis locked in to the top two seeds, unless something drastic happens, the Spurs and Clippers are currently the only two playoff teams in the West going in the right direction.

Houston, the current third seed, and Portland, the fourth, are both 5-5 in their last 10 as they struggle to cope with their own aches and pains. Wes Matthews is out for the rest of the season for the Blazers. LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum also got hurt and had to sit out the second half of their most recent game against the Grizzlies. With a team that already has depth issues, missing one more key player would solidify them as a one-and-done team in the playoffs.

The Rockets are also faltering as they have become 100 percent dependent on James Harden. Dwight Howard still hasn't returned from knee surgery in late January, and Terrence Jones will now also miss time after suffering a partially collapsed lung. Houston lives and dies with Harden, which is why he has a great shot at winning the MVP this season, but it's also a reason to be nervous of this team's chances in the playoffs.

In all truthfulness, as much as a third or fourth seed would help in the First Round, the road to the Finals for the Spurs will likely have to go through a road series against the Warriors and the Grizzlies. Unluckily for San Antonio, it doesn't seem as if the Thunder will be the nightmare eight-seed matchup for the Warriors as long as Kevin Durant's foot keeps giving him problems. Maybe the Pelicans sneak in and Anthony Davis goes Godzilla on Golden State, but that's a much longer shot than a healthy Thunder upsetting the Warriors.

If it's the case that the Spurs will have to travel to Memphis and Oakland four times out of a seven game series for two straight rounds, it's a good thing they're getting healthy now. This could be the most treacherous road to the Finals the Spurs will ever take, but seeing how they've been playing for the past month, it wouldn't be a surprise to see them come out of it on top.

Hunter Kossodo is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is a rabid supporter of Boston sports having lived there for most of his life. Follow him on Twitter: @HKossodo
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