The possible turning point in the Spurs’ thus-far disjointed, injury-addled season arrived this week against Los Angeles Lakers, courtesy of future Hall-of-Fame coach Gregg Popovich and Olympic gold medal winner Manu Ginobili. Ginobili has already provided San Antonio
’s signature plays at the mid-season (monster dunks over Houston’s Yao Ming and Dallas’ Josh Howard and Disagna Diop), so it’s no surprise Popovich turned to him after imploring his team to participate in their recovery against a lingering losing slide. Pop inserted San Antonio’s resident super-sub into the second half starting lineup and Manu responded in typical fashion, dropping dimes, delivering passes through opponents' legs, and making plays to spark the Spurs to victory over Kobe and company.
“I don’t think all the guys could remember what Pop said at halftime tonight,” Spurs guard Brent Barry said after the contest. “He reminds us that things aren’t always going to go well but you have to fight through it and that you’re not going to beat every team in this league, but you got to grind out wins and stick to our guns.”
Perhaps more than any other championship defending campaign, this year has illustrated the targets painted on the Spurs' collective backs and how much larger they grow when injuries strike. The team’s leading scorer, NBA Finals MVP Tony Parker, has steadily labored through a nagging bone spur. Tim Duncan, the foundation for the Spurs' dynasty, overcame a nasty looking leg injury earlier in the season yet at times appears to be playing in Robert Horry-esque cruise control. Ginobili himself has been battling the usual assortment of bumps and bruises that accompany his relentless style of play but was still the most exciting player on the floor, despite the presence of Kobe Bryant.
“The Spurs stepped up the pressure during the third quarter and we were unable to handle it,” Kobe told reporters after the game. “At the end of the third I felt pretty good considering we were able to handle a 14-point run and only be down four points. After the third, the Spurs knocked down two big three-point shots which helped them control the rest of the game. When you have a hard quarter you really have to rebuild energy and momentum all over again. As a young team, tonight was a good lesson to come to San Antonio and play through a hard game. Tonight is also a lesson in how quickly momentum can change during a game.”
The next evening, the Spurs survived a squeaker against the lowly Miami Heat, thanks to Ginobili’s late-game heroics, and Tim Duncan was named to his 10th all-star game. Barring some major surprises, Duncan will most likely be the lone Spur participating in the mid-season classic. The extra rest will benefit Parker and Ginobili tremendously, and as the Spurs head into their annual chemistry building rodeo road trip, they will need healthy guards to make a playoff push. Most importantly Manu must be, well, Manu.