DENVER -- On an empty court inside the Pepsi Center, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich explained that his squad can't hold out for a hero in light of the revelation that star forward Kawhi Leonard probably would miss the rest of the season.
"We've pretty much been that way, but this is the last 23 games of the season," Popovich said. "It doesn't do any good to be wishing and hoping that somebody's going to be added, and save the day, and all that silly stuff. These guys have got to go play for themselves and do what they do."
San Antonio attempted just that Friday but dropped its fourth consecutive outing, falling 122-119 to the Denver Nuggets as the Spurs continued on the fifth game of their annual rodeo road trip without Leonard in tow.
While a few Spurs cling to optimism regarding Leonard's potential return, the collective mindset of the team is it needs to conduct business as if the forward isn't coming back.
That's not easy.
"We should have that attitude that he's not going to come back, that's for sure," said veteran point guard Tony Parker, who came back in November from a ruptured quadriceps tendon suffered last season in the playoffs. "At the same time, we're still going to be hopeful and positive. That's just human. But at the same time, you have to be realistic."
The reality is the Spurs sought the best tendon experts in the world to work with Parker as he recovered from quadriceps tendon surgery, and Leonard throughout his recovery process from right quadriceps tendinopathy. Their treatment proved effective for Parker, but not Leonard, who continues to rehab, yet still feels pain.
Leonard missed the first 27 games of the regular season, and returned to play in nine outings before the Spurs sidelined the forward indefinitely last month. Leonard has told the organization at various stages of his rehabilitation process that he wasn't comfortable with his ability to play through the injury, and that the Spurs should shut him down.
The team's medical staff had actually cleared Leonard to return before his Dec. 12 season debut at Dallas, according to sources, who said the forward bears the burden of determining when he's prepared to play again.
Despite the perception the organization might be pushing Leonard to return to action, that's not the case, according to multiple sources, as well as Parker.
"It's not the philosophy of the Spurs," Parker said. "Everybody knows that the Spurs, as an organization, will do anything for you to be safe, and to prolong your career. That's the philosophy, not to rush anybody. So, he'll come back whenever he thinks he's ready."
In the meantime, the Spurs will continue to fight to maintain the NBA's longest active streak of consecutive postseason appearances (20) without their most dangerous weapon in Leonard, and a roster composed of six players age 30 or older, with three of them age 35 or older, and five contributors with three years or fewer of experience.
"We definitely feel a certain sense of urgency," veteran center Pau Gasol said. "We're very aware of the circumstances. We're playing hard, and we've given ourselves a chance. But for the last month or so when the schedule got a little tougher, the margin for error is really small. So we've got to really limit our mistakes. We've got to really be focused and understand the importance of little aspects of the game. We played well enough to win this game but didn't. The pressure is going to be on, and those [teams] are right there breathing on our necks. Hopefully, we'll get better and tighten up."
The Spurs hit the floor at Denver with their 20th combination of starters this season in Patty Mills, Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kyle Anderson and Dejounte Murray, as normal starting shooting guard Danny Green was sent back to the team's hotel just before tipoff, after dealing with a bout of food poisoning from eating bad spaghetti.
Heading into the loss at Denver, the Spurs had 11 players averaging at least 19 minutes per game, and 13 players in all averaging double-digit minutes.
"We can't cry about it," Aldridge said. "We've been playing like this [with the injuries all year]. I don't know where we're going to be after tonight [in the standings], but we've been third in the West. The West is tough every night. So, we can't cry about it; got to get tough and just make it happen."
Veteran forward Rudy Gay checked into Friday's game with 4:39 left in the opening quarter, marking the first time he has played since Dec. 28, when the forward suffered a heel injury that would knock him out of the next 23 games. With Leonard unavailable, the Spurs could use Gay's scoring to complement Aldridge's contributions on offense. But Popovich says Gay will be on a minutes restriction as he works his way back into the lineup.
In all, the Spurs have missed a total of 167 games because of injury and rest, and veteran Manu Ginobili appeared to be the embodiment of this undermanned team scrapping for every breath down the stretch playing the NBA's toughest remaining schedule. After the loss to the Nuggets, Ginobili walked down a hallway with members of the Spurs medical staff to the X-ray room inside the Pepsi Center to have a look at his chest after suffering an injury attempting to take a charge from Will Barton.
Ginobili inhaled deeply, saying, "I can't expand [my chest], so I can't really breathe well," before slowly outlining San Antonio's current situation as it prepares Sunday to close out the road trip at Cleveland, hoping to avoid a fifth straight defeat.
"I think we are not getting lucky with personnel," Ginobili said. "We are not playing with all of our soldiers, and today we played a team that was very inspired. We get Rudy [Gay] back, and we lose Danny [Green]. Sometimes, it's a little frustrating. It's been a tough season. The previous two games before the break, we lost L.A. [Aldridge], our leader and best player. With all that, we are not playing that well. If it's not the shots that are not falling, it's the defense and we can't stop them, or offensive rebounds. There's always something. So I don't think we are that far from getting over the hump. I can see the attitude, the extra pass, a lot of things that can get us over that hump. We've just got to keep fighting, working hard and sticking together; just being a rock-solid group."