The chatter in the Western Conference had been getting louder by the day as the Los Angeles Lakers creep ever closer to the injury-rattled but still NBA-best San Antonio Spurs.
And then an hour before the Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers tipped off Monday night, the entire league was abuzz.
Not only would the Spurs be without Tim Duncan for a fourth consecutive game with a sprained ankle, but Manu Ginobili (bruised thigh), Tony Parker (left knee contusion) and Antonio McDyess (back) also wouldn't play.
That's four San Antonio starters who didn't play against the team that had just beaten the Spurs in Portland with an improbable last-second comeback. When the dust cleared Monday on a surprisingly competitive game, the Spurs (57-17) had suffered their fourth consecutive loss. Their lead for the No. 1 seed, which was seven games a week ago, was down to 3 1/2 games over the Lakers and 4 1/2 ahead of the Mavericks.
San Antonio has eight games to play, while Los Angeles and Dallas each have nine remaining.
After Monday's loss, the Western Conference standings weren't on coach Gregg Popovich's mind.
"It was a great game. I thought our players were fantastic, super competitive and communicated well," Popovich said. "We just didn't shoot the ball very well, from 3(-point range) or from the line. If we could have added a little bit of that to the competitiveness and the heart they showed, we would have been in great shape. I'm really proud of them. They were super."
So, the Spurs, who are 0-4 without Duncan, but have lost by just an average of five points, can feel good about themselves after another tough loss. And the news might be getting better. McDyess, who sat out more out of precaution than injury, is expected to play Thursday against the Boston Celtics.
Parker could be back, and it's possible all four players could return, although that is not guaranteed.
TRAIL BLAZERS 100, SPURS 92: A makeshift San Antonio lineup might have pulled off an improbable victory if not for missing half of its 20 free throws and 19 of 25 attempts from 3-point range. The Spurs led 81-74 with 7:39 to go, but they couldn't hold the lead down the stretch. George Hill led a Spurs team playing without four injured starters, scoring 27 points. Tiago Splitter came through with 14 points and nine rebounds. Despite the poor 3-point shooting, the Spurs shot 48.1 percent overall, while the Blazers shot 52.3 percent. Andre Miller scored 26 points for Portland, which got 19 from Wesley Matthews. LaMarcus Aldridge had a rare off night, finishing with nine points and three rebounds in 37 minutes.
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