For most of the Spring, in the West, there have been two teams at the top: The untouchable Lakers, and then the dignified Spurs.
Below those two -- the royalty the NBA's West for as long as anyone can remember -- there has been a roiling scrum of up-starts, pretenders, long-shots, and dreamers.
Usually at this time of the year (most teams have about a dozen games left before the playoffs) the Spurs have their playoff position more or less locked up, and much of their game strategy has to do with resting veterans for the playoffs. After yesterday's classic battle with the Rockets, however, Gregg Popovich's team has lost seven of 13. Tim Duncan is playing with a bad quadriceps, and Manu Ginobili is still recovering from surgery.
And now the Spurs are third in the West. While they're only a half-game out of second, they are also just three-and-a-half-games ahead of not, fourth, not fifth ... but eighth place in the West. It seems impertinent to bring it up, but when a team is injured, and has lost seven out of 13, and has six very losable games coming up (road games at Atlanta on the second night of a back-to-back, at New Orleans, and at Cleveland -- and three home games against hungry Western talents: Portland, Utah, and New Orleans), you have to consider everything.
It's normally no big thing for one team to take a quick half-game lead on another team in the standings. But the Spurs have owned their division, the West, and the whole NBA for so long. This is a new feeling -- that they could be this kind of vulnerable (one little slip, and they could be eighth in the West) this late in the season. It's possible the Spurs will be back in second in day or two. It's also possible they won't be back for a decade.
Of course, the Spurs aren't the youngest team. Tony Parker is just 26 and a superstar, but Manu Ginobili is 31 and battling injuries, Tim Duncan is a year older -- although big men tend to produce even as their hair thins. Michael Finley is 34, Bruce Bown is 37, Kurt Thomas is 36, Fabricio Oberto is 34, Ime Udoka is 31. Even newcomers whipper-snappers Matt Bonner and Roger Mason are already, at 28, within sniffing distance of an age where athleticism normally declines.
No, I'm not betting against the Spurs, nor am I going to be 798th sportwriter to prematurely predict their demise.
But I am going to say this: The era of cruising gracefully to division titles and homecourt advantage is over for good. Anything the Spurs earn from this point forward they're going to have to rip from the hands of many younger teams that are just as hungry.