Father Time's unblemished record looks in jeopardy every time the Alamo City's finest take the floor. The court of public opinion slammed this core's championship window years ago.
Age-defying performances have become common practice for the Spurs, but they encountered a different type of hurdle this season. The stat sheet painted them as elite (top-seven efficiency rankings at both ends of the floor), yet this team couldn't hold court with the other elites.
Well, in the basketball world it doesn't get any more elite than the two-time defending champion Miami Heat. And the Spurs just demolished their fellow 2013 finalists in a wire-to-wire 111-87 rout Thursday night.
"It's getting to the end of the season here, and we need to start winning games like this, starting building our confidence," Tim Duncan said after a 23-point, 11-rebound performance, via Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News. "Just knowing we can win games like this when we get to the playoffs."
As if this team actually needed any reminders.
The Spurs (45-16) are headed for their 15th consecutive 50-win season. They're less than 12 months removed from their last NBA Finals appearance and now sit just a half-game back of the Western Conference-leading Oklahoma City Thunder (46-16).
There have been a few bumps in the road, none greater than the damage done by the injury bug.
Six of Popovich's top eight rotation players—Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter—have missed a total of 72 games. No matter how stable this franchise has been or how much success has come out of this system, there's no way to mask that many absences.
Their medical woes are almost a thing of the past, though. Reserve forward Jeff Ayres (sprained hand) sat out Thursday's win, but otherwise Popovich had a full complement at his disposal.
That's terrifying news for the rest of the league.
Parker was the last key contributor to rejoin the ranks, returning from a five-game absence on March 2. In the three games he's been back, San Antonio has rattled off an average of 115 points and assisted on 79.5 percent of its field goals. For reference, the league's highest-scoring offenses have managed 107.7 points a night (Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers) and the best passing team holds a 66.8 assist percentage (Atlanta Hawks).
"We’re starting to turn the corner,” Duncan said, via Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News. “We have all our guys out there and we’re starting to get back into a rhythm.”
Duncan, somehow, seems to be getting better with time. Already a future first-ballot Hall of Famer, the 37-year-old enjoyed his best scoring month in February (18.9) and just had one of his finest games of the season against one of the top teams in the business:
Parker, the team's lone All-Star representative this season, is once again having an MVP-caliber impact. A controlled workload (30.8 minutes) has somewhat limited his stat sheet (17.6 points, 6.2 assists), but his importance to this team remains as high as ever.
"Tony's our setup guy," Duncan said, via Raul Dominguez of The Associated Press. "He runs our team, he sets our pace, sets our rhythm."
Leonard has a deep bag of tricks, even for a Swiss Army knife. Long (6'7" with a 7'3" wingspan) and athletic, he's blossoming as a glue guy with the skills to fill whatever need San Antonio has.
"He is just growing day by day," Popovich said of the third-year swingman, via NBA.com's Fran Blinebury. "He is starting to feel confident in his role and taking pride in being a defender and a rebounder first."
And if Leonard needs to get offensive, he has no problem doing that, either.
Other teams might have more talent, but no team does a better job of maximizing its full potential.
Pop's players understand their roles, trust his system and execute his time-tested game plan like clockwork. This is a cliche personified, a group of individuals fully immersed in the pursuit of a shared goal.
It's that common drive that keeps San Antonio near the forefront of this championship race.
"I don't know what our record will be, I don't know what our position will be in the playoffs and I don't really care," Popovich said, via ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst. "I just want to be healthy and I want to be playing well, have a good rhythm and good rotation going."
Health? Check. Rhythm? Check.
As for playing well, I want to say yes, but I know better than that. This team doesn't reach for its sprinting shoes before May.
Those same beat-up sneakers the rest of us told them to toss years ago. The same ones that have led them down the path to the podium before and have them primed for a possible return now.