The problem for the Spurs at the outset of their Sunday afternoon game against the Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix was a head-to-head battle with human nature.

How do you maintain focus against a team missing four of its best players to injury and in such a state of disarray that it had lost its previous 10 games and 25 of its previous 27?

By the time the fourth quarter arrived the problem had become more basic: How do you deal with an opponent so hungry for a regular season victory that it plays as if its 57th game of the season were Game 7 of The NBA Finals?

In the end, the Spurs kept their heads and their games together long enough to avoid what would have been their most embarrassing loss of the season, escaping with a 118-111 win that ran their record to 47-9, the best mark in franchise history. It turned into an even more important victory when Cleveland defeated Oklahoma City, giving the second-place Spurs another game’s advantage on third-place Oklahoma City in the Western Conference standings. They are now 4-1 on their eight-game rodeo road trip that will conclude Saturday in Houston.

The Spurs understood they had not paid appropriate respect to the Suns and were fortunate to get away with the victory.

“We always talk about respecting our opponent,” said Rasual Butler, whose role off the bench has been elevated since injuries to Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard have thinned Gregg Popovich’s playing rotation slightly, during a televised post-game interview with FoxSports Southwest broadcasters. “We don’t want to make excuses but we had a pretty short turnaround (from Friday’s game in Los Angeles) and we’re just trying to get back to playing the way we were before the All-Star break.”

Butler scored a season-high 12 points, nine of them in the fourth quarter, when the Spurs had to deal with an aggressive, full-court press by the Suns that caused a few problems.

“You have to give (the Suns) a lot of credit,” point guard Tony Parker told reporters in a televised post-game interview. “They played well. They played very aggressive defense, pressing and stuff like that. They made some shots, a lot of threes and it was just a close game.”

Parker scored 22 points and fellow point guard Patty Mills scored 21, 18 of them on six three-point makes, matching a career high.

Sunday’s game got as close as it did – tied at 100-100 with 6:19 remaining – because the Suns got way too many easy baskets. They scored 56 points in the paint, 34 of them on dunks or layups, always an indication of defensive negligence, a continuation of an alarming trend since returning from the All-Star break.

In 53 games before the break they had allowed an average of only 92.4 points per game, No. 1 in the NBA. In the three games since they have allowed an average of 109.3. The fact that Leonard, reigning Defensive Player of the Year, has missed all three games with a sore left calf clearly has had dramatic effect, but his absence hardly explains the Suns having scored 56 points in the paint, 18 of them on dunks.

“(Not having Kawhi) is not an excuse,” Parker told reporters. “We understand we have to do better.”

It wasn’t long ago that some of the Spurs were lamenting the fact they were winning most games so easily they were getting scant experience with end-game situations that might steel them for the playoffs. After needing to play to the finish against both the Suns and the Lakers, who have an even worse record than does Phoenix, they are getting a little more of that experience than they bargained for.

“We know we’re not going to beat everyone by 20 or even win every game,” said Mills, “but it’s definitely good to go through this experience and learn from it and put it into the rest of the season.”

*Top image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Mike Monroe is a longtime, award-winning sports journalist who has covered the NBA for the San Antonio Express-News and other publications.