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Raja Bell looks ahead to Western Conference playoff race
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With Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs were considered an outside threat to the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets to come out of the West. Without Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs will have to fight just to make the playoffs.
On Wednesday, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said he’d be “surprised” if Leonard plays again this season, virtually eliminating any hope that San Antonio had of adding to their collection of NBA championship trophies this season. Now the focus shifts to the Western Conference playoff race, which looks like it’s going to come down to the wire.
You have to resist the urge to say the news about Leonard couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Spurs, because it could have (like last season when they lost Leonard in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals) — but the timing isn’t great. The Spurs have been comfortably in the No. 3 spot in the Western Conference for most of the season, but their grip on the seed has all but evaporated.
As of Wednesday they’re barely ahead of the Timberwolves, and just 4 1/2 games separate San Antonio from the No. 10 Utah Jazz. There’s a huge logjam in the conference behind the Rockets and Warriors, which means one extended losing streak could cause the Spurs to actually fall out of the playoff race, territory they haven’t been familiar with since the pre-Tim Duncan days.
To further complicate matters, the Spurs face one of their toughest stretches of the season following the All-Star break, with the vast majority of their opponents over .500.
They come right out of the break with games against the red-hot Nuggets and the revamped Cavaliers, and they have two more games each against the Warriors, Rockets and Thunder — they play all three in a row in a mini road trip starting on March 8. Yikes.
Even teams at full strength would have trouble navigating the Spurs’ second-half schedule, and they’ll most likely have to do it without the services of their perennial MVP candidate.
You still have to put your money on the Spurs until they prove you wrong, but they’re going to have to fight, scratch and claw for their playoff lives in a dog-eat-dog Western Conference for the remainder of the season.