Can Spurs avoid missing playoffs for first time since 1996-97?

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Kawhi's plan to get back: 'Just play' (1:09)

Kawhi Leonard describes his plan to return to the court this season while reiterating that he would like to finish his career as a Spur. (1:09)

SAN ANTONIO -- San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich nodded to acknowledge the challenges his injury-riddled squad has faced in the wake of dropping four in a row at home for the first time in 16 years.

Popovich then injected the reality coursing through San Antonio's veins with a month remaining in the regular season.

"Quit your crying and just play," Popovich said. "That's what we've done. Nobody's crying, nobody's making excuses. Everybody has problems they have to overcome with their teams. With us, it's been the injuries. And [we're] very disappointed because we wanted to pick up where we left off last year after 61 wins and going to the conference finals. For a large portion of the season we were first or second in defensive efficiency. Our last 10 games, we've been 22nd. That tells the whole tale right there.

"How does that happen? Well, it's the same guys, they care just as much. So they must be getting a little low on fuel as we move along."

At a time when the Spurs typically start formulating plans for resting players for the postseason, they find themselves still without their best player in Kawhi Leonard and sputtering on fumes with no R&R on the horizon, as they fight to keep pace in the midst of a competitive eight-team race for the last six playoff spots in the Western Conference.

"Halfway through the season we were aiming for the third spot," veteran guard Manu Ginobili said. "Now we are aiming for the playoffs."

San Antonio's NBA-record streak of 20 consecutive playoff appearances appears to be in jeopardy as it scraps through the ultra-competitive West, as well as its streak of 18 straight seasons with 50 wins. The last time the Spurs failed to capture 50 victories in the regular season was the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, which was comprised of just 50 games. And the Spurs won the title that year.

Before Monday's 100-98 win over Memphis, San Antonio had lost eight of its previous 10 games, including Sunday's home defeat to the Los Angeles Lakers -- a contest in which the Spurs led by 12 points in the fourth quarter before falling 116-112. It marked the Spurs' sixth loss in a seven-game span. More concerning was the fact that they surrendered fourth-quarter leads in each of those defeats.

That's certainly not typical for a team that feels if it can keep games manageable through three quarters, it can oust opponents down the stretch through experience and superior execution. For the majority of the past 20 years, San Antonio relied on Tim Duncan to close out games, as well as Tony Parker and Ginobili, and more recently, Leonard.

On Wednesday, Leonard spoke to the media for the first time since Jan. 13, saying he expects to return "soon" from the quadriceps tendinopathy that has kept him out of all but nine games this season, but also cautioned, "I don't have a set date right now." So the Spurs wait.

"Night in and night out, we could count on Tony to get a layup or Manu or Timmy to execute a play without even having to call it," guard Danny Green said. "Now we have to draw up plays and explain it to [players] and see how well they can execute it. It's very different. The old Spurs that we used to be [are] not here anymore."

Duncan called it quits two years ago. Ginobili is 40. Parker now comes off the bench and still isn't 100 percent after suffering a ruptured left quadriceps tendon last season in the conference semifinals.

The Spurs are the league's second-oldest team behind the Houston Rockets, according to the Elias Sports Bureau (average age of 28.7). What's more is they also cover the most ground on offense in the NBA, according to NBA Advanced Stats, at 9.71 miles per game. In addition, the Spurs move at the third-fastest average speed in the NBA this season, behind just the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls.

"When it rains, it pours. And it's pouring right now. It's pouring hard on us."
Pau Gasol

So as the season advances, it's no surprise Popovich thinks his squad is running out of gas. The team's late-game performances since Feb. 1 indicate as much.

San Antonio's net efficiency in clutch time, which is defined as the final five minutes of a game within five points, is a league-worst minus-64.1 since the start of February, according to NBA Advanced Stats. Conversely, the club's net efficiency in clutch time this season through the end of January ranked at an NBA-best plus-28.9.

In addition, the Spurs ranked second in the NBA in the fourth quarter in both net and defensive efficiency through the end of January. But since Feb. 1, the Spurs sit at 28th in the NBA in fourth-quarter net efficiency and last in fourth-quarter defensive efficiency.

Popovich knows the numbers well and laughed when a reporter mentioned San Antonio still ranks No. 2 in the NBA in defensive efficiency for the season.

"That's really a joke, isn't it? There should be a lot of people embarrassed that we're No. 2 as bad as we've been in the fourth quarters of the last 11 games," Popovich said. "Our problem has been our defensive breakdowns in fourth quarters. That's been obvious. We haven't shot it well. That's gonna happen now and then. But you can't make the defensive errors if you're not going to score. That's really been our problem more than anything.

"So that's our focus: maintaining the defensive focus for 48 [minutes]. We did that for the first 50 or 60 games. But at this point, in the last 11 games, we've been really poor defensively in fourth quarters."

San Antonio's injury situation plays a role, leading to increased minutes for inexperienced players. Currently 10 Spurs average at least 19.9 minutes, compared to only six players last season carrying that type of workload. Ginobili, the second-oldest player in the league, is even forced to play more minutes (20.6 this season, compared to 18.7 in 2016-17).

So it's no surprise that 13 players have finished at least one game this season as San Antonio's leading scorer, with Parker the latest to join the list after Monday's 23-point performance against the Grizzlies.

The Spurs stayed afloat early in the season without Parker and Leonard by winning the games they were supposed to. Against teams with records below .500, San Antonio rolled up a record of 23-6 with an offensive efficiency of 106.6 points and defensive efficiency of 97.8.

But those numbers worsened to 104.5 on offense and 106.3 on defense against teams with records of .500 or better, as the Spurs went just 13-21 against those opponents.

In the meantime, the Spurs utilized 22 different starting lineups (fifth most in the NBA), with 12 players combining to miss a total of 175 games, including three players (Leonard, Parker and Rudy Gay) sitting out at least 20 games because of injuries. From a salary standpoint, the players missing games earned a total of $22.7 million while injured, which ranks as the sixth-most dollars lost to injury in the NBA this season, according to research from ESPN Stats & Information.

Even leading scorer LaMarcus Aldridge missed three games because of knee and ankle injuries, and the Spurs finished winless in those games without the forward, who like Duncan before him, also carries the role of quarterback of the defense.

When the Spurs face the Warriors on Thursday, there's a chance they'll be missing two more key players: Gay (eardrum) and Pau Gasol, who hurt his shoulder in a collision with brother Marc Gasol on Monday.

Parker mentioned Pau Gasol "told me it was bad. So we will see, but I'm pretty sure he's not going to play against Golden State."

Of the five teams utilizing the most lineups in the NBA, only two -- the Spurs and Clippers -- own winning records, while Sacramento, Phoenix and Memphis head into Thursday's games with a combined record of 57-136.

"Like Tony Soprano says, 'What are you gonna do?'" forward Kyle Anderson jokingly asked.

Answers aren't aplenty, after all.

San Antonio closes out the season with eight of its final 18 games on the road, including a brutal three-game stretch starting at Golden State, followed by matchups at Oklahoma City and Houston. The Spurs own a record of 14-19 on the road, which includes a mark of just 3-14 against teams with records of .500 or better. The club could finish with a road record below .500 for the first time since the 1996-97 season, which coincidentally was the season second-year point guard Dejounte Murray was born.

"We have three very difficult games on the road against top teams in the West," Gasol said. "So there's no time to feel sorry for yourself. When it rains, it pours. And it's pouring right now. It's pouring hard on us. No excuses. We've just got to get it done. What we've been saying all along [is] our margin of error is very, very small because of our situation and our dynamic right now."