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Spurs Nuggets Basketball

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, a Merrillville grad, confers with San Antonio guard Dejounte Murray in the second half Friday in Denver.

David Zalubowski, Associated Press

It would be so easy for Gregg Popovich to be sticking pins in a Zaza Pachulia doll.

The Golden State center's cheap foul put superstar Kawhi Leonard on the shelf with a bum ankle in Game 1 and quickly sent Pop's Spurs spiraling out of the 2017 Western Conference Finals.

It had looked so promising for the Merrillville grad, whose Spurs were 61-21 in the regular season and making their 20th straight playoff appearance.

But Pachulia delivered a dagger when he closed out on a Leonard shot attempt, put his left foot under Leonard after the shot, and forced Leonard to land awkwardly.

"A two-step, lead-with-your-foot close-out is not appropriate. It's dangerous. It's unsportsmanlike. It's just not what anybody does to anybody else," a livid Popovich told reporters afterward.

"And this particular individual has a history with that kind of action."

A year later, the Spurs still haven't recovered.

Neither has Leonard, who missed the first 27 games of this season and has played in just nine games since with right quadriceps tendinopathy.

The Spurs' playoff hopes are taking on water and Pop is handing out buckets.

"We only have an X number of games left this season and (Leonard's) still not ready to go," Pop said at practice this week. "If by some chance he is, it's going to be pretty late so it'll be a tough decision on how late do you bring somebody back?

"I'm just trying to be honest and logical. I'd be surprised if he comes back this year."

A few days after Pop dropped that bombshell, word came that Leonard might return to the lineup sometime in March.

Here's the really scary part: The five-time champion Spurs are 14-19 on the road, have lost 10 games by seven points or less and are 9-12 in their last 21.

Heading into Wednesday's matchup with New Orleans, they have 16 games against teams with records above .500 — of which 10 are behind them in the playoff race, separated by as few as 3 1/2 games.

That includes two games each against the far superior Warriors and Rockets.

Imagine if the Spurs fail to get in, marking the first time since 1997 when their point guard Dejounte Murray was 8 months old.

If they do make the playoffs, a quick exit seems likely, having lost 168 player-games to injury or rest and having started 20 different lineups.

Inconsistency this late is sure to bite you.

Through all the setbacks, drama and injuries, Popovich has done a masterful job of keeping the team together and competitive most nights.

"It’s basketball. It’s not the Middle East peace process. It’s not figuring out why our democracy is being eroded. It’s pick and roll. Big deal," he said.

"We've got to move on. The team has to realize this is who we are, this is who we have, and we just have to play."

Pop once told me that t's just a game and not worth tearing yourself apart. Worry about our soldiers overseas, the poor, sick and homeless.

Their lives could end today but there is always another basketball season.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at