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Spurs look to kick it up a notch against Nuggets

For nearly 20 years, the San Antonio Spurs have been a model franchise. They have won 50 or more games in 18 straight seasons and piled up five NBA titles since the 1998-99 season.

Even in the time of Golden State's recent run of success, San Antonio is the most respected organization because of its consistency.

Now the formidable Spurs are showing some cracks. They have lost five of their last six games and need to go 15-8 in their last 23 to reach 50 wins again.

The push starts Friday night when San Antonio (35-24) faces surging Denver. The Nuggets (32-26) have won nine of their last 12, including a couple impressive wins before the All-Star break. The first of those was a eight-point victory over San Antonio 10 days ago, the Spurs' last game before the All-Star break.

The Nuggets took advantage of the absence of LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard that night, and while Aldridge is expected to return for Friday's game, San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich -- the one constant in the franchise's two decades of success -- said he would be surprised if Leonard plays again this season.

Leonard has been limited to nine games with a right quad tendinopathy injury, and although he has been medically cleared to return, he hasn't indicated he will return. He has gotten a second opinion outside the organization, and reports say returning is a matter of managing the level of pain.

"We only have X number of games left in the season, and he's still not ready to go," Popovich told reporters in San Antonio on Wednesday. "If by some chance he is, it's going to be pretty late into the season, and it's going to be a pretty tough decision -- how late to bring somebody back. So that's why I'm just trying to be honest and logical. I'll be surprised if he gets back this year."

While the Spurs are dealing with tough news on the injury front, Denver is getting healthier. Forwards Mason Plumlee (right calf strain) and Paul Millsap (left wrist surgery) returned to practice Wednesday. Plumlee is expected to play Friday and Millsap, out since mid-November, will likely return in early March.

"My intention was to come right back after the all-star break and get into it, but we have to be smart about it," Millsap said after Wednesday's practice. "This was my first practice today, full contact, and I have to be smart about my wrist and my body."

Having Plumlee back gives the Nuggets some needed depth in the frontcourt, especially with Aldridge expected to play Friday. Plumlee is one of Denver's best low-post defenders and that will allow center Nikola Jokic to not have to be on Aldridge.

Friday's game gives the Nuggets an opportunity to finish the season with a split of the four games with the Spurs. San Antonio won both games at home and Denver wants to hold serve on its court.

A win is also important in the tight Western Conference playoff race. The Nuggets are 2 1/2 games behind the Spurs for the third seed but sit only one game ahead of the Los Angeles Clippers for ninth and two games ahead of 10th-place Utah.

The Nuggets have been able to stay in the thick of the race despite the absence of the two big men, and their return could be the boost needed for the stretch.

"It's just great to have those guys back," Nuggets coach Michael Malone told reporters. "We'll figure out who plays and when they play, but being healthy with 24 games to go (is) a good thing to be."

Updated February 22, 2018

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