Not long before the San Antonio Spurs were set to tip-off against the Minnesota Timberwolves last weekend, coach Gregg Popovich found out that Manu Ginobili and Marco Belinelli were not going to be available because of injuries.
It was the latest in a series of unexpected obstacles that have gotten in the Spurs' way during their first title defense since the 2007-08 season.
''Manu was a surprise losing him. Losing Bellie today makes us, you know, a little bit paranoid,'' Popovich confessed before the Spurs easily dispatched the lowly Wolves, 108-93.
Paranoid? The Spurs? In January?
The Spurs have spent almost 20 years turning the NBA's regular season into nothing more than a six-month warmup for the playoffs.
They manage minutes, develop bench players and set recovery times from injury with an eye not on winning games in the regular season, but making sure the team is adequately prepared and rested for the 2 1/2-month postseason grind.
Popovich has perfected the art of the 82-game ramp-up, never getting overly concerned about how the team is playing in winter so long as they are progressing to where they need to be come spring time. And that's easy to do when the Spurs also own the best regular season winning percentage in the league over the past decade.
But after the Spurs took their game to heights rarely seen in steam-rolling through the playoffs and beating the Miami Heat for the franchise's fifth championship last June, they are in the unfamiliar position of chasing the pack.
They are 23-15, good for just seventh in the powerful Western Conference and three games behind sixth-seeded Dallas.
''We had that tough schedule last month, and we put ourselves in a hole. It's a long season, and it's time, we've got time to fight back,'' Tim Duncan said. ''But we've got to start now. We've got to start focusing, concentrating on racking up the wins no matter where it is whether it's home or on the road or whoever it's against.''
They have dealt with a litany of injuries that has really prevented them from finding any kind of a groove this season. The Spurs went 8-10 in December - the first time in the Duncan era that they lost more games than they won in a month. And it has injected an uncommon sense of urgency in a team that rarely sweats the standings this early in the season.
''Every game is going to mean something,'' Popovich said. ''We're disappointed we're in the position we are. We lost some games we could have won. And we were just injured at the wrong time. December was a heck of a month for us schedule-wise, and being injured at that time was tough.''
Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Tony Parker have all missed big chunks of time with injuries while Manu Ginobili and Belinelli have suffered the nagging, more minor variety.
''If we knew who was out, that would be good,'' Popovich said. ''But it's been someone different every night. If we knew a few guys would be out for three weeks, then you can get into a rhythm with that group. But we haven't been able to do that because it seems like it's different people every other game.''
After beating the Timberwolves on Saturday night, the Spurs have won four of their past five games. A win in Washington on Tuesday would give them their first three-game winning streak in more than a month.
A modest achievement like that is hardly something these level-headed Spurs would celebrate. But their uneven start to the season, and the incredible level of competition in the Western Conference playoff field this year, has put them in this position. So as they have done so many times before, they are adjusting their approach, and trying to ramp things up a little earlier than they normally would.
''We need to get on a rhythm, get some chemistry going,'' guard Danny Green said. ''And putting some games together would be nice.''
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