Though it will be downplayed by the players and coaches, the Monday matchup between the San Antonio Spurs and the Cleveland Cavaliers at the AT&T Center in the Alamo City is a crucial one, albeit for different reasons.
For the Spurs, it is all about continuing their late-season momentum on the way to their annual march to the postseason.
For the Cavaliers (47-25), who are tied with the Boston Celtics (48-26) for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, every game is important and each win will allow them to put their stamp on a somewhat disappointing regular season.
San Antonio (56-16) will host the NBA's defending champions, bringing a four-game win streak into the game after handling the woeful New York Knicks 106-98 on Saturday. The Spurs got 29 points from erstwhile MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard and double-doubles from both Pau Gasol (19 points, 11 rebounds) and LaMarcus Aldridge (19 points, 10 rebounds).
With the win over New York, San Antonio has now beaten every team in the league as least once for the third straight season and seventh time in franchise history. The Spurs are the first team to beat every other NBA team at least once in three consecutive seasons since Philadelphia accomplished the feat in seven straight from 1974 to 1981.
The Spurs have 10 games left in the regular season, with seven of those against teams in line for the playoffs. San Antonio got within two games of idle Golden State for the best record in the NBA and the Western Conference.
"These (last 10 games) are opportunities for us to get ready and to see where we are at," Gasol said. "At this point, we just have to build the right habits so when we start our playoff run we are ready to go, we are sharp and we are locked in and we know what we are playing for."
The Cavaliers head south into the Lone Star State on the heels of a 127-115 home loss to the Washington Wizards, their third setback in their past five games. Cleveland is just 5-5 in its past 10 outings, with losses to Detroit, Houston, the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver during that stretch.
LeBron James shook off an eye injury from Friday night to total 24 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists versus the Wizards, but it wasn't near enough. James briefly wore protective eye glasses to cover the scratched cornea he suffered on his right eye, but tossed them toward the bench with 3:37 left in the first quarter.
James now has 37 double-doubles this season, a career high.
Cleveland, which is ranked in the bottom third in the league in defensive efficiency, also has 10 games remaining before the playoffs start. Seven of those games are against teams in line for the postseason or just out of the final spot.
"We just got to figure it out and continue to see what fits our group, see what fits our lineup, see what fits our team as a whole and what's going to give us the best shot to win each and every game," James said after the loss Saturday.
"Like I said, you can't base last year on this year. This year is different. Every year is different, so I think our coaching staff will figure that out for us."
San Antonio defeated Cleveland in the teams' only other meeting this season, winning 118-115 in overtime on Jan. 21 despite playing without the injured Gasol (fractured left fourth metacarpal) and Tony Parker (left foot pain). Leonard scored a career-high 41 points for the Spurs.