HOUSTON — No Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Manu Ginobili meant no chance Monday in Houston for the San Antonio Spurs, who closed out a brutal three-game road trip with a third consecutive loss, falling 109-93 to the? Rockets.
Veteran point guard Tony Parker leaned back against a grease board in the postgame locker room and let out an uneasy laugh.
"Been winning for a lot of years," he said. "Since I've been in the league, I've made eight conference finals, five NBA Finals. We've been winning a lot. But this year, there's been a lot of injuries. We just have to find a way to try to qualify for the playoffs."
Not an easy proposition for the Spurs, who find themselves now out of the postseason picture and out of the top eight in the Western Conference standings this late in the season for the first time since before they drafted Tim Duncan (1997), with matchups on tap at home Tuesday against the Orlando Magic, followed by a trio of minefields in the New Orleans Pelicans, Minnesota Timberwolves and the Golden State Warriors. It's expected that by the time the Spurs host the Pelicans on Thursday they'll have Leonard back in the lineup.
But he's played in just nine games all season. So nobody's expecting imminent rescue by Leonard, even though his elite skill set suggests he probably could save San Antonio's season.
"I saw the reports that say he wants to come back Thursday," Parker said. "So it'll be 14 games left. It is what it is. We'll try to do our best. I know everybody wants to keep fighting. There's a lot of character on this team. If Kawhi comes back, hopefully he can help us. We know it's not going to be easy. He didn't play for like two months. It's going to be a tough situation regardless, but we'll try to do the best we can."
The loss to the Rockets left San Antonio sitting at 10th in the West behind the LA Clippers, Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets, teams that occupy the Nos. 7, 8 and 9 spots. The Jazz own the tiebreaker with the Spurs, while a tiebreaker with Denver will come down to both teams' final conference records.
The Spurs are on pace to win just 45 games.
"We're in a position now where we've dropped," veteran center Pau Gasol said. "We've lost a few in a row, and now, there's no margin for error anymore. Before, it was slim. Now, there is none. So now we've just got to go out there, and compete and win."
Once Leonard comes back, several concerns undoubtedly will surface. Will Leonard play on a minutes restriction? For how long? How will Leonard feel once he actually plays an actual NBA game for the first time in a little more than two months?
Considering the Spurs have played 58 games without Leonard on the floor, it's reasonable to question how the star forward will affect the team's chemistry upon his return. Then, finally, with just 15 games remaining, is that enough time for San Antonio to jell and capture enough victories down the homestretch to qualify for the postseason?
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and the rest of the team prefer to ponder such inquiries later down the line, once their star is already on the floor.
Popovich even scoffed at the suggestion that he might be keeping the team informed of its every movement in the West standings, because that's not needed for a franchise such as the Spurs, steeped in playoff history. "You don't think they know where we're at?" Popovich asked.
Popovich walked around the locker room as the team prepped to board a bus headed to the airport and told player after player "9:55, 9:55," which is presumably when the Spurs will return to the facility for shootaround Tuesday in preparation for what several described as a "must-win game."
Nobody in the locker room showed any signs of frustration or desperation, and it could, considering what's transpired over this season on the injury front. The first quarter against the Rockets served as somewhat of a microcosm for San Antonio's season, as Popovich used 11 different players in just the first 12 minutes.
"Surprised?" guard Danny Green asked. "It's not ideal. But anything can happen, especially with the way things have gone for us. Not ideal. I'm not happy with it, and I didn't expect it. But I wouldn't say I'm surprised by this."
Still, Houston point guard Chris Paul won't count out Popovich and the Spurs, who could wind up seeing the Rockets again in the playoffs.
"It is strange, but without Kawhi, that's tough. That's tough," Paul said. "They've missed a number of guys. But if anybody is going to find a way, Pop will find a way."
Throughout the season, the Spurs have used 23 different starting lineups with players sitting out a combined 182 games. In fact, San Antonio has had 15 players lead the team in scoring this season (outright or tied), which qualifies as the most in the NBA, according to research from ESPN Stats & Information. The Spurs have had literally only one game with their entire roster available.
Still, the Spurs remain undaunted in the face of the current circumstances.
"Everybody tries to be the best they can be by playoff time," Popovich said. "That'll be our goal, too — to be in the playoffs and be as good as we can possibly be no matter what the circumstances are."