Like many of you, I got pretty amped on Tuesday night when San Antonio Spurs sixth man Manu Ginobili turned back the clock and turned on the jets for an emphatic, and all-too-rare-these-days, driving dunk through the teeth of the Houston Rockets' defense to tie the game at 56:
My amplitude decreased, however, upon realizing that the 36-year-old guard had a hitch in his giddy-up after the slam. He appeared to limp heading back down the floor on defense, and before very long it was clear that something was amiss; Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich removed him from the game with five minutes left in the third quarter and didn't bring him back, ruling the Argentine legend out for the remainder of the game with tightness in the left hamstring he'd injured earlier this month. Ginobili finished with nine points, one rebound and one assist in 14-plus minutes as the Spurs fell to the Rockets, 97-90.
Ginobili's first hamstring strain cost him two games. We already knew Ginobili would miss Wednesday's matchup with the Chicago Bulls; asked after the Rockets loss if he'd bring Manu back the day after coming up lame, according to Jabari Young of the San Antonio Express-News, Popovich said, "I can't take that chance." As it turns out, Pop won't be able to tempt the hand of fate by rolling the dice on Manu for quite a while.
The Spurs announced Wednesday afternoon that an MRI revealed another strain to the left hamstring, and that Ginobili is "expected to miss three-to-four weeks." It's absolutely dreadful timing for a Spurs team that is already terribly thin on the wing without starting shooting guard Danny Green (out with a broken bone in his left hand) and starting small forward Kawhi Leonard (out with a broken bone in his right hand).
The stream of injuries — San Antonio has also been without starting center Tiago Splitter (sprained right shoulder) since Jan. 4 — is finally starting to take its toll on the Spurs, who have just lost consecutive games for the first time this year, have dropped three of four and four of six, and found themselves relying on point/combo guards Patty Mills, Cory Joseph and Nando De Colo serving as small forwards in makeshift fourth-quarter lineups against the Rockets on Tuesday. The lack of size on the wing hurt the Spurs badly, as Houston grabbed nine offensive rebounds in the second half, including four in the final minute and a half of the game to extend possessions, chew up clock and stymy San Antonio's comeback bid.
“Playing with point guards on the wing hurts a little,” Tim Duncan said after the loss, according to Buck Harvey of the San Antonio Express-News.
It's a pain San Antonio will have deal with over the next couple of weeks, with Marco Belinelli, recently D-League call-up/10-day contract signee Othyus Jeffers and De Colo the only swingmen left standing. Belinelli will likely bear the largest burden at the three, with Pop again looking to lean on multi-point-guard lineups should the opposition's configuration allow him to get away with small-ball. When Splitter comes back — which could happen as soon as Saturday against the Sacramento Kings, according to Jeff McDonald of the Express-News — Pop could also look shift for stretches to big lineups featuring some combination of Duncan, Splitter and Matt Bonner up front with Boris Diaw at the three. Not an ideal outcome, but hey, beggars can't be choosers and injuries force strange adjustments.
To what degree the Spurs' offense will be able to adjust to life without Ginobili, arguably the frontrunner for Sixth Man of the Year at this stage of the 2013-14 season, remains to be seen.
While Manu's box-score stats aren't eye-popping — 12.1 points, 4.5 assists, 3.3 rebounds in 23.7 minutes per game, shooting 45 percent from the field and 35.3 percent from 3-point range, all roughly in line with his per-minute numbers from a year ago — his ability to kickstart second-unit offense whether on or off the ball gives San Antonio a major advantage over most opponents' reserve squads. The offensive-end chemistry he's developed with Belinelli has been especially stellar — with those two on the court to space the floor, move off the ball, create off the bounce and make passes others might not dare, the Spurs are averaging a whopping 120.3 points per 100 possessions, and outscoring the opposition by just under 12 points-per-100, according to NBAwowy.com.
San Antonio has six five-man units that have shared the floor for at least 30 total minutes and have outscored their opposition on a per-possession basis. Manu's part of four of them, including the Spurs' most successful, and second-most-used, lineup: Diaw-Duncan-Ginobili-Leonard-Parker, which has scored at a blistering rate of 115.6 points per 100 possessions, light years ahead of the league-best numbers put up by the Miami Heat and Portland Trail Blazers, and outscoring opponents by nearly seven points-per-100. When he goes off the court, the Spurs' offensive efficiency plummets by 10.5 points-per-100; this is the difference between having the best offense in the league, No. 1 with a no-look bullet pass, and having a 17th-ranked unit that nestles snugly between the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets.
That's a massive, massive drop-off, and it's the kind of thing San Antonio can ill afford while they're working without three of their best defensive players. But that's the Spurs' lot in life right now, as they face two more home games before shipping out on their annual "Rodeo Road Trip," a nine-game stretch that starts Feb. 3 against the New Orleans Pelicans and takes San Antonio through the All-Star break. Splitter and Green could provide reinforcements before the Spurs find their way home, but for the time being, Popovich will need Parker and Duncan to produce more like peak performers than runners pacing themselves if they hope to avoid getting lapped in the Western race by the conference-leading Oklahoma City Thunder.
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