Last 23 games could make or break Spurs

As they get back to work after the All-Star break, the Silver and Black must pocket 15 more victories to extend their NBA-record streak of 50-win seasons to 19.

Spurs Rodeo Road Trip at a glance

(Spurs are 1-3)

Feb. 7: Beat Phoenix 129-81

Feb. 10: Lost to Golden State 122-105

Feb. 12: Lost to Utah 101-99

Feb. 13: Lost to Denver 117-109

Friday: vs. Denver, 8 p.m.

Sunday: vs. Cleveland, 2:30 p.m.

There's no way around it: The All-Star break couldn't have come fast enough for the Spurs.

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In a reason reduced to a series of fits and starts by injuries, the Silver and Black started their respite on a three-game skid and were 1-5 in February. It's been such a tough month for the Spurs that they'll finish their annual Rodeo Road Trip with a losing record for only the second time in 16 seasons.

When they resume their schedule Friday night in Denver, where they lost their last game before the All-Star break, the Silver and Black (35-24) won't have much more time get healthy before the jockeying for playoff seeding heats up in the last quarter of the season.

Given the uncertainty of All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard's status – he has played in only nine games this season and hasn't been in the lineup since Jan. 13 – the Spurs could be hard-pressed to extend their NBA-record streak of 50-win seasons to 19.

With 18 of the team's last 23 games against opponents .500 or better, getting 15 more victories to reach the 50-win mark will be a daunting task for the Silver and Black. More importantly, the Spurs could find themselves in a dogfight to make the playoffs if they don't find their groove down the stretch.

San Antonio has managed to remain third in the Western Conference standings despite Leonard and veteran reserve forward Rudy Gay being sidelined, but fourth-place Minnesota (36-25) is only percentage points behind San Antonio. Five other teams – Oklahoma City, Denver, Portland, New Orleans and the Los Angeles Clippers – have 26 losses apiece and are separated by 1.5 games.

Ultimately, the Spurs' season will come down to whether Leonard, who has struggled to come back from tendinopathy in his right quadriceps, can return in time to be a factor down the stretch. He seemed to be making strides after making his season debut Dec. 12, but the Spurs shut him down again because they said he wasn't progressing as well as expected.

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Six-time All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge has had an outstanding season in his third year with the Spurs, averaging a team-high 22.4 points to go with 8.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.2 blocks in 33.9 minutes.

Coach Gregg Popovich has given no timeline for Leonard's return, saying only that "he's getting closer" to playing again. The uncertainty begs this question: What's the minimum number of games Leonard and his teammates would need to mesh and develop some chemistry before the playoffs start?

With every week that passes, speculation rises that Leonard could be out for the remainder of the season. Given his lingering injury, that's not out of the realm of possibility.

Gay, signed last summer to back up Leonard, was the team's third-leading scorer before he went down with a heel injury in a game against the New York Knicks on Dec. 28. He hasn't played since, missing 23 games. Popovich said earlier this month that he expected Gay to return to the court after the All-Star break.

Other players, including veteran point guard Tony Parker, have been dogged by an assortment of injuries. Parker missed the first 19 games of the season after having surgery to repair the tendon in his left quadriceps that he ruptured in the conference semifinals last spring. He returned to the lineup against Dallas on Nov. 27, starting 21 games before losing his starting job to second-year pro Dejounte Murray a month ago.

Manu Ginobili was sidelined for six games last month with a right thigh contusion, and Danny Green missed 10 games from Dec. 9 to Jan. 9 with a groin injury. Backup center Jeff Lauvergne also has felt the pain, missing 10 games with a sprained ankle in the first month of the season.

Despite the obstacles, the Spurs have pressed on. After starting the Rodeo Road Trip with a 48-point blowout of Phoenix, San Antonio lost to Golden State by 17. Then came gut-wrenching losses to Utah (101-99) and Denver (117-109).

Point guard Dejounte Murray finished with 10 points and five rebounds in the Spurs' 120-111 loss to the Utah Jazz on Saturday night at the AT&T Center.

While they played Utah and Denver without leading scorer LaMarcus Aldridge, who flew back to San Antonio to receive treatment on his sore right knee, the Silver and Black could have won both of them. They led the Jazz and Nuggets in the fourth quarter, but fizzled down the stretch in both games.

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Aldridge, averaging a team-high 22.4 points to go with 8.4 rebounds per game, has been the Spurs' rock this season. Praised by Popovich for his outstanding play on both ends of the court, Aldridge was named an All-Star for the sixth time in his 12-year career.

The Spurs vacate the AT&T Center every February to make way for the San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo. Thus, the Rodeo Road Trip. The Silver and Black won't play at home until they face the New Orleans Pelicans on Feb. 28.

The Spurs had a cumulative 88-37 Rodeo Road Trip record before they started 1-3 this year. The Silver and Black return to work with a practice Wednesday afternoon, and end the rodeo trip with games in Denver on Friday and Cleveland on Sunday.

The Spurs have played with a full roster only once this season. That was on the night they beat the Brooklyn Nets 109-97 on the day after Christmas. Leonard scored a career-high 21 points and Aldridge finished with 20.

But two nights later, Gay went down with bursitis in his right heel. It's been that kind of season for the Spurs.