What's Behind the San Antonio Spurs' Most Recent Surge?

Don't look now, but the Spurs are hot on the Warriors' trail as we head down the homestretch.

For years, we've expected the San Antonio Spurs' streak of excellence to end. One year after the next, we have slept on them as a contending team in the West while being awestruck by up-tempo teams like the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers.

In recent years, though, we have at least realized -- albeit, midway through the season -- that they've been great, but just flying under the radar. We talk about it so much now that it's almost impossible to sleep on them. Yet with the exit of Tim Duncan and the neverending decline of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, this was the year where we most likely lose the Spurs as top contenders.

Once again, it just hasn't happened.

Head coach Gregg Popovich is still manning the sidelines and Kawhi Leonard is now carrying the superstar title once held by those before him. Before recent events, though -- notably the injury to Kevin Durant -- we haven't realized just how good the Spurs remain and just how close to the Warriors they are.

The key word there being recent...

Surging Into March

Nobody is playing better than the Spurs right now -- they're an NBA-best 8-2 over the last 10 games, and 10-2 over their last 12.

If we want to further remove ourselves from the present, San Antonio is 15-4 in the last 19 games. Their win percentage of 78.9% in that month-and-a-half span trails only Miami, Golden State and Washington but is still greater than that of Boston, Cleveland and Houston.

In returning back to the immediate past, across the same 10-game span, the Spurs are first in defensive rating (98.7) and third in net rating (9.2). They're also second to the Thunder in rebounding percentage and first in opponent effective field goal percentage, at a mark of 48.6%.

For those reasons, among others, the Spurs are now just 3.5 games back of the Warriors with 23 games and just over a month left in the regular season. With Durant out at least four weeks, a lot could happen. If he's out any longer, the Spurs might even supplant the Warriors as championship favorites.

So, expect the battle for the 1 seed and homecourt advantage to heat up as we head down the last leg of the season.

Kawhi Doing Kawhi

A while back, a conversation around NBA circles revolved around Leonard and whether the Spurs were better without him. The numbers were trending that way, but as we know, that's not the truth. On both offense and defense, the Spurs are better with their superstar forward.

Over his team's last 10 games, that remains the truth.

Spurs, Last 10 With Leonard Without Leonard Difference
O Rtg 116.3 103.0 13.3
D Rtg 101.9 101.9 0.0
Net Rtg 14.4 1.1 13.3

Defensively, the team is solid across the board, with or without Leonard (according to NBAWowy). This is the case despite him playing against primarily better competition. As a starter, he plays against opposing starters more often than not, while the second team goes on to compete against opposing backups absent Leonard.

That same point goes to say much more about the team's offensive impact with Leonard on the floor. While facing stiff competition, the Spurs are nearly 15 points better per 100 possessions on over 38% shooting from three and an effective field goal percentage (53.5%) nearly five percentage points higher than without Leonard (48.8%).

The player himself is performing beyond his already fantastic season averages, with 26.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.0 steals in 31.9 minutes per game over his last 10. In doing so, Leonard has converted on 49% of his field goals and his net rating of 15.3 far outshines his season-long mark of 9.2.

Bringing "Pau!" Off the Bench

After missing 15 games with a fractured finger, Pau Gasol returned to the court Friday but did so from the bench. Coach Pop implemented the same strategy for the team's next two games on Sunday and Wednesday night.

Now, it's not uncommon for a player to return in a different capacity until he proves his stamina is back to full strength. The thing is that this move might not -- and should not -- be temporary.

For starters, it appears that the 16-year-veteran has no problem with the change. After so many years and a few championship runs, Gasol values the team over himself. It just so happens that his current role appears to benefit both parties.

Since his return, the 36-year-old has averaged 16.7 points on 57.7% shooting from the field and 77.8% from the three-point line. Of his per-game output, 2.3 makes came from beyond the arc while he's also added 7.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 22.3 minutes off the bench. His net rating of 18.6 during this time blows his 7.3 rating for the season out of the water.

Clearly, Gasol has excelled recently, but it's also been beneficial to the team. The Spurs are 3-0 in those contests and have averaged 108 points in victories over the Clippers, Lakers and Pacers. And, it's in a small sample size, but the Spurs' second-team lineup of Gasol, Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili, Jonathon Simmons and David Lee own a net rating of 33.6 in 10 minutes together across three games.

It's plain to see that Gasol gives the second-team a big boost offensively. However, unlike his time in the starting lineup, Gasol is adequate enough defensively to hang with second-team centers, with a defensive rating of 100.5 -- four points better than his rating for all 42 games he's played this year. At the same time, Dewayne Dedmon, who is less offensively-gifted, remains in the starting lineup and holds opposing bigs to 95.4 points per 100 possessions on the season.

This shift has proven valuable for the Spurs and should continue to pay dividends going forward if Pop chooses to stick with it. You never know -- down the line, it could be the very reason the Spurs take over the top spot in the conference and secure homecourt advantage throughout the Western Conference Playoffs.