SAN ANTONIO -- San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich ended an interview and spun around to reach for the door handle after uttering three words in response to a question about his team clinching a playoff berth for the 21st consecutive season.
"Aww, it's wonderful," he said.
News conference, over.
But what begins now for San Antonio after Monday's 98-85 win over the Sacramento Kings is one final push to improve playoff seeding Wednesday when the Spurs face the New Orleans Pelicans at Smoothie King Arena. As it stands, the Spurs can finish anywhere between fourth and eighth in the Western Conference standings with one game remaining in the regular season.
"It feels good," said Rudy Gay, who came off the bench to record a team-high 18 points as one of five Spurs to score in double figures. "It feels great, actually."
The Spurs currently sit at sixth in the standings, and with a victory over New Orleans, they're assured at least the No. 5 seed but could move up to fourth depending on the outcomes of other games in the conference.
For a franchise that tied the Portland Trail Blazers on the NBA's all-time list for the second-longest streak of consecutive postseason appearances -- and had captured back-to-back 60-win seasons in the previous two years -- the Spurs expressed sincere relief in finally clinching the latest berth. Typically, at this time of the season, the Spurs are resting players in preparation for the playoffs.
Current circumstances no longer allow for such a luxury.
"Sometimes you have got to adjust your goals relative to your potential and the way you have been playing, the way the season is going," said Manu Ginobili, who contributed 17 points and five assists. "We have to be realistic. Maybe we are not the favorites this year, or it was not going to be a 60-win season like the previous ones. After what happened in February and early March, we had to shift our expectations, and we mentioned it many times. The goal was to make the playoffs. Once we clinched, then we could talk about standings. The way the West is this year, it's crazy. Everything is so clogged, so tight that at this point, we are happy to have it clinched."
The Spurs have played with 25 different starting lineups this season, including another new one against the Kings. Spurs players have missed a total of 196 games due to injury, with star forward Kawhi Leonard leading the way with 71.
In fact, San Antonio has played with its entire lineup available in only one game this entire season.
"As we mentioned many times, we've had a very tough season with a lot of injuries and rotations," Ginobili said. "I don't know what's the number, but the amount of starting fives we've had is crazy.
"It's been a roller coaster. Some games you feel great and [feel] that you got over the hump. Then you go to L.A. and lose two bad games," Ginobili said, referring to the Spurs' consecutive losses to the Clippers and Lakers on April 3 and 4. "Then we come back and we flourish again or we fight again. It's been a tough season."
All the attrition and constant change appeared to be finally taking its toll Monday night with 6:05 to play and the Spurs trailing by 14 points to a struggling Kings squad. San Antonio didn't take its first lead of the game until 10:18 remained in the contest.
"Forty-eight minutes is a long time," Popovich said. "And in an NBA game, things go back-and-forth. Sometimes one of the scariest things for a team is to go up quickly in the first quarter because it oftentimes changes back. But our defense kicked in, [the Kings] scored 35 in the second half and that's what we have to be about. Sometimes we're going to have droughts offensively, but our defense has to keep us in ballgames. In the second half we played really good defense and then on top of that, we made a few shots. So, I thought they dug down deep, kept their composure and did a fine job. It's a wonderful win for them."
The season, meanwhile, has shaped up to be one of the most rewarding of Popovich's career, despite the adversity and the fact San Antonio found itself in the unfamiliar position of having to fight just to make the playoffs.
"It is a different position," Popovich said. "We haven't really been in that kind of a position very often. But all the same things apply: being humble in wins, learning from losses and moving on, not dwelling on things, just trying to improve. It's like we've said in any other year: We want to be the best team we can be come playoff time. I think at this point, other than our road play, we've gotten to the point where we know our team pretty well. We're as good as we can get. We've got a lot of guys that have really progressed. We all have been frustrated because we wanted to pick up where we left off last year, and that didn't happen for all the reasons we know. But life goes on. I think under the circumstances, they've done a wonderful job of being in this position. Hopefully we'll finish it the right way."