Spurs' title hopes rest on Manu Ginobili's health

Marc J. Spears
Yahoo Sports

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Manu Ginobili missed 22 straight games earlier in the season after breaking his left hand. (Getty Images)

OAKLAND, Calif. – San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich had ample reason to be nervous when Manu Ginobili was fouled hard by two Golden State Warriors while driving to the basket Monday night. Ginobili was fine afterward, but given the guard's history of bad luck and injuries, Popovich could be forgiven for his concern. 

Popovich, as much as anyone, knows what Ginobili means to his Spurs.

"No Manu, no championships," Popovich said.

While All-Star point guard Tony Parker and future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan are the Spurs' top two scorers, Popovich rests the Spurs' hopes for a fifth title on Ginobili's shoulders. It was about this time a year ago that the Spurs secured the Western Conference's best record only to lose Ginobili to a hyperextended right elbow in the regular-season finale. Ginobili missed the Spurs' opening game against the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round and didn't play up to his normal level the remainder of the series as the Spurs lost.

Injuries have again limited Ginobili's time on the court this season. He's averaging a modest 12.6 points in 23.5 minutes per game – his fewest since his rookie season – but that's not important to the Spurs. What does matter: Ginobili's competitive fire – which Popovich ranks alongside that of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant – hasn't dimmed at all.

"He has the same love of winning and maniacal approach to competitiveness," Popovich said. "It's the same as Michael and Kobe have.

"He doesn't have the same athletic ability. But he has the same spirit and competitiveness that they do. He has a high basketball IQ like they do in the sense that it could be an offensive board, a 3-point shot, a drive, a steal, an assist to win a basketball game.

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"He knows what it takes. If you combine that IQ and that competitiveness, he's a special person."

That competitiveness – and some ill fortune – have contributed to Ginobili's injury troubles. An ankle injury he suffered playing for Argentina in the 2002 world championships slowed the start of his rookie season with the Spurs. He missed 17 games in the 2005-06 season because of foot and ankle injuries. A ligament injury in his left foot late in the 2007-08 season limited him in the Spurs' loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the West finals – and ultimately caused him to sit out Argentina's bronze-medal game against Lithuania in that summer's Beijing Olympics.

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Tim Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker have won three championships playing together. (Getty Images)

Ginobili played in only 44 games during the 2008-09 season because of a right ankle injury. He was an All-Star last season while playing a career-best 80 games, but suffered the fluke elbow injury when he got pinned between Duncan and Suns forward Grant Hill while coming off a screen in the finale. Ginobili was later diagnosed to have a fracture in the elbow.

The Grizzlies went on to beat the top-seeded Spurs in six games in one of the NBA's biggest playoff upsets.

"It was hard to miss the first game," Ginobili said. "The team wasn't used to playing with me and it had to adjust on the fly. But then I played – I played, but I think I did poorly.

"We were outplayed by a team that did better."

Adding to the frustration: The Spurs had held Ginobili out of the previous game against the Lakers to give him a little rest before putting him back on the court the following night against the Suns.

"We thought we were doing everything right," Popovich said, "but stuff like that can happen and screw up your entire plans."

Ginobili weathered more bad luck this season when he broke his left hand in the Spurs' fifth game. He missed the next 22 games after undergoing surgery.

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Popovich is now using Ginobili off the bench, and is hopeful he'll be back to his old form in the playoffs.

"I'm good; nothing is hurting," Ginobili said. "I'm getting there. Getting my rhythm has been tough because I haven't had enough practices and games."

Popovich typically rests his key players toward the end of the regular season. But with Ginobili – who has played only 29 of the Spurs' 59 games – Popovich also has to balance whether it's best to give him more court time before the playoffs begin. The Spurs are battling the Oklahoma City Thunder for the West's top playoff seed, but that doesn't concern Popovich.

"Manu is coming along fine," Popovich said. "I don't think he is 100 percent rhythm-wise. But he's healthy and he's getting in shape pretty much. He feels pretty good about his game. By playoff time he should be 100 percent."

That's all the Spurs want to hear.

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