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Spurs follow Ginobili's lead into playoffs

Spurs follow Ginobili's lead into playoffs
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Manu Ginobili missed last season's playoffs because of an injured right foot

The questions, the skepticism – the fear – this is what made Manu Ginobili(notes) burn. He felt it from within his own organization, from the opposing defenders who nudged closer to him, from the reporters who wanted to know how he was feeling. Everyone, it seemed, had lost faith. Their eyes said as much, even if their lips didn't.

He's not the same.

On a few of the tougher nights, Ginobili wondered, too, and perhaps that hurt worst of all. His career had stretched from Argentina to Italy to Texas, delivering him three NBA championships, an Olympic gold medal and assorted other European titles, but there had been so many games, so many collisions. His left foot was the first to fail him, initially in the 2008 playoffs, then in the Olympics later that summer. Surgery followed. Once he began to find his game again late last season, he injured the right foot.

So Ginobili trudged forward this season, hoping to recapture what he had lost. The weeks went by and, still, he couldn't find his burst. He'd walk off the court, shoulders sagging, muttering to himself in Spanish. This was also true: His head needed fixing as much as his body. He and his wife were expecting twins and his impending free agency continued to stare at them. Having long expected to be with the San Antonio Spurs through the end of his career, he slowly convinced himself he'd have to play elsewhere. All of it weighed on him.

"The thing that bothered me this whole time," Ginobili said, "was people doubting me I could do it."

Looking back, maybe it was foolish to question him. Through his eight years in San Antonio, Ginobili had lifted the Spurs through all those end-of-game, pressure-cooker moments. Resurrecting himself might have been his greatest comeback yet. It took five months, but he has again made believers of them all, and that explains more than anything why the Spurs decided to give him a contract extension that will pay nearly $40 million over the next three years.

When Ginobili's healthy, when he's playing as he has over the past couple months, isn't anything possible?

The Spurs will tell themselves that as they begin the playoffs on the road for the first time since Tim Duncan's(notes) rookie season. Facing the deep and talented Dallas Mavericks, they're underdogs to even make it out of the first round. Still, there's a sense of hope that was missing a year ago, and that comes from the player who wore a sports coat throughout last year's postseason. Ginobili's passion, his competitiveness, spreads through a roster. When he believes, they all do.

This, too, is why the Spurs ignored industry logic and extended Ginobili rather than wait until summer, when they could have assessed their roster after the playoffs. They gave Ginobili the maximum they could for a three-year extension, all of it guaranteed, and that carries risks. Ginobili turns 33 in July, has a recent history of injuries and the Spurs can't stop him from playing in this summer's FIBA World Championships or even the 2012 Olympics, if he desires. If the Spurs could be sure they'd remain a title contender, no one would have blinked. But this is a team that could be scheduling tee times in two weeks. Wasn't it time to start planning for the future?

For these Spurs, the future is forever now. If they're going to fall from the ranks of the league's elite – if they're already falling – they'll do so clinging to the back of one of the players who helped carry them to the top. Duncan has long been the franchise's old soul, the rock upon which its four championships were built. But for much of the past decade, Ginobili has given the Spurs their fire, their heart. Even if the Spurs continue to transition to a younger team, Ginobili will guide and teach. He's too valuable to let walk away. He earned this contract.

Few among the Spurs saw this coming, even as recently as January. The team looked equal parts too old and too young, a miscast collection of underperformers. Nearly half the roster was either sweating the trade deadline or hoping to be shipped out.

"We're not a team," one Spur said then. "Not even close."

Privately, the Spurs knew any improvement would have to start with Ginobili. "He just seemed off," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich says now. Even as Ginobili's spirit looked willing, his body often did not. One night in Oklahoma City, he dove 5 feet out of bounds, arms and legs extended, to save a deflected pass that led to the winning basket. He also missed all 10 of his shots that same night, creating this dilemma for the franchise: What do you pay a player who refuses to let you lose even when his skills appear to be eroding?

These were the tough questions the Spurs asked themselves. The answers didn't come until Tony Parker(notes) went down. Then, the Spurs gave the ball to Ginobili and asked him to save their season. He scored 38 points the following game. Within the past three weeks, he has led them to convincing victories over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets. He has regained his swagger and explosiveness, barreling relentlessly into Dwight Howard(notes) one night, holding his ground against Ron Artest(notes) the next.

"He's … different," the Thunder's Kevin Durant(notes) told reporters, and he should know: Ginobili had just run him down to block his dunk at the rim.

The Spurs described Ginobili similarly after signing him. In a game early in his rookie season, he sped down the court on the break, wrapped the ball around his waist twice and zipped a pass … into the third row of fans. Popovich confronted him in the locker room afterward.

"What was that?" Popovich demanded.

Ginobili looked at his coach and shrugged. "It is who I am," he said, forever endearing himself to his teammates.

Long ago, some of the Spurs came up with their own term for Ginobili's how-did-he-do-that exploits: head-shakers. "We didn't see many of them early in the season," one team official said recently. "Now we're getting about three a game."

Ginobili says he always knew he'd find his magic, but even those closest to him weren't quite so sure. Ginobili will admit this much: "I didn't know whether people would trust me anymore."

Not only do they trust, they also follow. These Spurs of the past six weeks belong to Ginobili as much as anyone. Popovich spent the season searching for a winning combination, and he found one when Parker broke a finger and Ginobili moved into the starting lineup. Ginobili has made Richard Jefferson(notes) productive. He has made DeJuan Blair(notes) better. More than anything, that explains why Parker returned as a reserve.

George Hill's(notes) injury could change that, as could a single loss. Ginobili knows better than anyone that Popovich's rotations are much like the weather in South Texas: here today, gone tomorrow. As well as the Spurs have played of late, they're still a seventh seed. If they drop the first two games, something will give. In the past, it has usually been Ginobili's starting job.

And if the Mavericks again eliminate the Spurs in the opening round? This summer could bring more change.

Signing Tiago Splitter(notes), the team's 2007 first-round pick, is a start. Spurs officials are increasingly confident they can lure Splitter from Europe, and the 7-foot center's scrappy game could fit them the way Anderson Varejao's(notes) fits in Cleveland. Still, Ginobili's contract, along with the $15 million Jefferson is due, could force the Spurs to get creative if they want to make additional upgrades. If the team's confidence in Hill continues to grow, then assessing Parker's trade value is always an option.

This is based on opinion more than fact, and there's a reason for that: Parker is just one year removed from carrying the Spurs. Ask the Detroit Pistons how difficult it is to replace a franchise point guard. They shipped off Chauncey Billups(notes), thinking Rodney Stuckey(notes) was nearly ready to step into Billups' role.

These also are the types of decisions a transitioning franchise must make. The Spurs don't know what the summer will bring – or even the next two weeks. They open the playoffs on the road against a deeper, longer, stronger opponent. The Mavericks could again quickly usher them into vacation.

Unlike a year ago, the Spurs now have Ginobili. They've leaned on him for more than a month, and he's delivered. At the least, he's taught them this much: Anything is possible.