As season hits home stretch, Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs eye bigger prize

Warriors lead Spurs by 1.5 games in West, yet will rest four players in Saturday night's showdown in San Antonio

SAN ANTONIO — Who blinks?

The Golden State Warriors have worn the bullseye on their backs as they’ve run away from the field for the past three seasons.

The San Antonio Spurs have been the ones chasing and aiming.

Two years ago the playoff showdown never occurred because the Spurs slipped on the banana peel of the LA Clippers while the Warriors won a championship.

Last season it didn’t happen because the Spurs gave up a playoff lead to the Oklahoma City Thunder, who gave up a playoff lead to the Warriors, who gave up the ultimate playoff lead to the Cavaliers.

So now they finally meet on Saturday night (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC) with so much on the line.

Or maybe nothing.

The Warriors with the No. 1 record in the NBA arrive in San Antonio to face the No. 2 Spurs with just a narrowing sliver of daylight between them.

After losing for the fourth time in the last six games Friday night at Minnesota, Golden State’s lead for best record in the league is down to just 1 1/2 games. So the top overall seed in the playoffs is now potentially up for grabs as the regular season enters the stretch run. But immediately after the loss, Warriors coach Steve Kerr blinked, announcing that he’ll sit Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala against the Spurs.

It would have been an opportunity for San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard to close out his challenging run-the-gauntlet week having faced Houston’s James Harden, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook and Curry, his top two challengers for the 2016-17 MVP award and the winner of the honor the past two years. But after taking a blow to the head Thursday against the Thunder, Leonard is now in the NBA’s Concussion Protocol and will not play.

The Warriors are closing out a two-week crisscrossing tour of the Lower 48 map that looks as if somebody dropped a GPS from a very high shelf onto a very hard floor.

It’s the kind of high-drama, high-stakes game that network TV executives started to drool over last August when the schedule was announced.

Except that now it isn’t.

That’s because the calendar says it’s March and the playoffs are waiting just weeks ahead in April and, in the modern age of the NBA calendar, that means just one word looms over the rest.

That is: rest.

Who plays? Who sits? That is the nightly question that makes the entire league blink from an ugly, spreading black eye.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is the Pied Piper of Peace and Tranquility. His Cause for the Pause has made downtime for the assorted parts of his roster as much a part of the regular routine as icepacks.

Kerr, like virtually everyone else with a whistle hanging from his neck these days, is a Popovich disciple and therefore follows suit.

The Spurs will be finishing a stretch of four games in six nights when they take the floor before the home crowd at the AT&T Center. Up till now, Warriors had not rested anyone during their eight-games-in-eight-cities-in-three-time-zones-in-13-nights journey and are closing it out on the second leg of a back-to-back. All this while hoping that Kevin Durant’s hyperextended left knee will mend in time for the post-season.

“I do think about what’s best for the league,” Kerr said during Monday’s whistle-stop in Atlanta. “I don’t know what’s going to happen…but we’ll keep an eye on everybody. If we have to rest certain guys, we’ll rest them. I’ll make the apology to the opposing fans at that point.”

Popovich usually just grunts and makes no apologies.

For a couple of elite teams with 102 wins between them that have already clinched playoff berths, these are first-world problems.

But for the league as a whole it is a nagging, growing quandary that eats away at the edges of competition, which after all is at the heart of the game. It is a problem of modern times, where teams employ sleep consultants and use biometric gadgets to measure the fatigue levels of their high-priced talent. It is also one that is practically and sensibly solvable if the regular season schedule were sliced from 82 to 66 games. Of course, that means the club owners and players would have to make do — perhaps — with 20 percent less in their wallets. But the fact that it was never even a topic of serious discussion in the recent collective bargaining talks tells you about priorities of both sides.

So the fans and a potentially big TV audience are left holding the bag and the leftover bones of what could have been a seismic showdown on Saturday night.

How much does it mean for the Warriors to hold onto that top seed in the playoffs? They both won (OKC) and lost (Cleveland) lost Game 7s on their home court at Oracle last year.

“We still want the No. 1 seed,’ Kerr said. “I’m not going to run guys too ragged to get it…It would be nice to get. But you have to get through the season in one piece. You have to pace yourselves a little bit.”

From here on out, will the Spurs put the pedal to the metal in a desperate chase to overtake the No. 1 spot in the West? They had home court in 2016 and still lost to the Thunder.

“We don’t try to catch anybody,” Popovich. “We just play. Where we end up, we end up.”

They’re both hurting, limping, bedraggled. Does either side want to lay it all out there right now?

Who blinks? Everybody who was ready to watch, from a finger in the eye.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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