With Ginobili whole, Spurs like their chances

By Jeff McDonald

Manu Ginobili flung up a final few jumpers at the end of practice Saturday, then wandered over to do time with the gathered media.

What the Spurs guard said mattered far less than how he looked and felt.

Unlike the eve of last year’s postseason, there was no constricting blue brace strapped to Ginobili’s right arm. His elbow is fine. Hand, too. The ankles, knees, nose and abdomen? All shipshape, thanks for asking.

Incredibly for this time of year in South Texas, Ginobili doesn’t even report any allergies.

“No complaints,” he said.

For the Spurs, hoping to parlay this year’s No. 1 seed in the Western Conference into a deeper run than last year, that is certainly good news.

The Spurs open Game 1 of their first-round series against eighth-seeded Utah this afternoon at the ATT Center, their 34-year-old Argentine playmaker intact.

It is a stark change from, well, the past four postseasons.

Ginobili hasn’t been completely healthy and available for an entire playoff run since 2007. Not coincidentally, that is the last time the Spurs won an NBA title.

With point guard Tony Parker playing the best basketball of his life, Tim Duncan looking years away from retirement and Ginobili whole, the Spurs enter this year’s tournament liking their chances of taking home Larry O’Brien Trophy No. 5.

“We’re confident. We’re playing well,” said Duncan, the Spurs’ 36-year-old captain. “Above all, we are healthy.”

It’s a big “above all.”

The Spurs were confident last year, too, before disaster hit on the last day of the regular season in Phoenix.

Ginobili was squeezing between the Suns’ Grant Hill and a Duncan screen when his right elbow became trapped, hyperextending ligaments and fracturing bone.

He missed Game 1 against Memphis, which the Spurs lost en route to becoming the second No. 1 seed in the best-of-7 era to tumble in the first round.

“An injury messes up everything,” said Ginobili, who averaged 13.2 points and 4.8 assists off the bench after the All-Star break. “When you are hurt, you think more about your injury than your opponent and what you’ve got to do.”

Ever since the 2007 championship, the Spurs have been able to faithfully write “catastrophic Ginobili injury” on their April calendar, just before the words “plan early vacation.”

This year, perhaps Ginobili got it out of the way early, missing 22 games with a broken left hand from January to early February.

Some of the playoff injuries Ginobili could play through (ankle ligament impingement, 2008; fractured nose, 2010; fractured elbow, 2011). Some he could not (stress fracture, right leg, 2009).

Given the hardscrabble manner in which the Jazz play, there’s no guarantee Ginobili makes it out of this year’s first round unscathed.

Utah doesn’t rank among the NBA leaders in fouls for nothing.

“Every time we play Utah, it’s a lot of hits and a lot of hacking,” Parker said.

Ginobili’s injured elbow was not the sole reason the Spurs lost to Memphis last season — Zach Randolph and the rest of the Grizzlies had something to do with it, too — but it didn’t help.

If nothing else, the pratfall of last April served to remind the Spurs of how much has to go right to win a championship, and how little time this particular incarnation has left to add another one.

“We don’t talk about it, but they’re intelligent people,” coach Gregg Popovich said. “They know they’re not going to play together forever. That’s why last year was such a big disappointment.”

Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are the longest-tenured trio of teammates in the NBA, and the calendar never stops flipping forward.

“This year, I’m sure it’s in the back of their minds,” Popovich said. “They know they’re getting closer and closer to where that group is not going to be there.”

This afternoon, unlike last season, that championship-winning core will be intact to start the playoffs.

Because of that, the Spurs like their chances.

Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN

What they said: Dressing-room quotes from Sunday’s game

Here’s what the Spurs and Suns had to say in their dressing- room comments after the Spurs’ 102-91 victory Sunday night, courtesy of the Spurs media service department.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich

(What was your confidence level keeping Cory(Joseph) out there until Alvin (Gentry) made the move with Steve (Nash)?)

“Well, obviously you know because I left him out there for quite a while. He’s a young, energetic player who is willing to stick his nose in.  For a sophomore in college, I think he’s pretty special.”

(On the play of Tim Duncan and Steve Nash…was it kind of like a throwback game?)

“Timmy and Steve are two good examples of people taking care of their bodies, that’s for sure.  They’re trim, cut and slim. They watch what they eat and they take care of themselves.  You can see it really shows on both of them.”

(Did you get what you wanted to see out of the defense tonight?)

“Steve’s so tricky. He frustrates everyone no matter what you do. You can’t be perfect at it.  We had a couple of steals and some good stops at appropriate times, but we can certainly get better.”                                           

(On Tony Parker…)

“Tony, especially without Manu, it’s important for him to stay as aggressive as he has been.  He’s playing defense and he’s busting his butt.  When you’re the point guard and you’re handling the ball and you’re guarding somebody like Nash, so much of it is on your shoulders. I think he’s really shown great composure and great aggressiveness.”

Spurs forward Richard Jefferson:

(On Tim Duncan’s play.)

“I always think he has ‘it,’ even on the nights he doesn’t have it. I think it’s amazing how he gets all of those rebounds, blocks and he’s just good on defense. He’s always doing a lot of things that probably never show up in the stat sheet.”

(On rookie Cory Joseph’s play.)

“He was great. He’s extremely young and he’s got into a tough situation backing up as tough a point guard as Tony (Parker). I think tonight was one of the first times he was able to get up and play defense and know how to control the offense. He was able to direct the plays, kind of break the offense in and do the right thing. For him it’s going to be key to continue playing defense, but he’s quick, he’s young, he’s got a lot of energy, and he’s going to use that to his advantage. ”

Spurs guard Tony Parker:

(On keys to the Spurs’ victory over the Suns.)

“We had to follow the ball and play great defense, which is tough against Steve Nash when he plays the pick and roll. Overall we did a great job not giving up three’s when we usually let up around 21 attempts a game. We did a great job covering that and on Steve (Nash) and (Marcin) Gortat, we did the best we could.”

(On the Spurs’ defensive improvements at home versus playing on the road.)

“I think we just paid attention more. We were around the bottom of the league and Pop, with film, showed us a lot of stuff we can improve from against Milwaukee, when it was a game we should have won.  So I think everybody had a conscious effort and everybody shored up their defense, so that we can be successful in this league.”

Suns coach Alvin Gentry:

(Opening statement)

“It was an uphill battle. The game would’ve been an even game if we would’ve put ourselves in an opportunity to make it interesting. Once again, we dug ourselves a hole as we spend most of our time trying to get ourselves out of it. On the flip side, we continued to play as we were within five points as at one point it was 89-94. Then from there they scored eight and we scored two the rest of the way. We just have to continue to work as we have some new guys trying to fit in as well as some rookies still trying to find themselves. Tim [Duncan] played great tonight and when you’re in a place like that it’s really tough to beat. You have to make a decision as they have shooters all around him, so you can’t really go out and double-team him as he played great and made some plays. Overall, we continued to struggle with shooting it, but I thought we played hard and for the most part they did what was asked despite the few breakdowns which were to be expected. I just think we will continue to play hard and get better as that’s the only thing that we can do.”

(On the performance of Nash and Gortat)

“Yeah, they played great as Marcin [Gortat] is getting better as Steve [Nash] had a lot of zip tonight as he’s still not feeling great. I thought he played well as I thought at the end he ran out of gas a little bit as he also got hit. I thought we did a great job of reading situations in the game and using the pick and roll at appropriate times with Steve making the shot. We’re still not shooting it like we’re capable of and we’re not scoring like we’re capable of, but the shots were there. We just have to get the confidence to step up and knock them down.”

(On the performances of Splitter and Leonard)

“Well Splitter has played good from them in the past. I have watched four or five of their games and actually what has happened is that when the second unit is in the offense really goes through him. He’s played pro basketball half his life so it’s not anything unusual as he did a good job of creating post space and post moves with a couple of big plays. Leonard is an athletic guy as he has a lot of confidence as they have instilled that in him. He really feels free to shoot the ball when he wants to and he’s going to be a really good player in the league.”

Suns center Marcin Gortat:

 (On matching-up against Tim Duncan tonight)

“Obviously playing against Tim Duncan is a huge challenge as he’s one of the best post guys currently in the NBA, if not one of the best. It’s always a pleasure to play against him as it’s always great to compete against him. I’m always learning something new from each game I play against him. Tonight was a challenge as I don’t think I was really focused today as he got me a couple of times on the pump fakes, which resulted in me fouling him. I have had worst games against him, so tonight was pretty decent as I’m looking forward to the next match-up.”

(On his offensive performance tonight)

“First of all, I don’t think I had a great offensive game. I missed a lot of shots that I usually make as I started really bad and really slow. I started out 0-4 as I had to figure it out as Nash continued to pass me the ball so I had to find a way to score. I tried to be more aggressive and tried to put the ball on the ground as I knew in that aspect, Tim Duncan couldn’t keep up with me. Over time, I tried to make him tired and tried to make him aggressive.”

Suns forward Grant Hill:

(On how he was feeling tonight)

“I felt fine. The legs felt good, I was running well and the knee felt good.”

(On what they can do on defense to limit the other team)

“We had been doing well defensively and offensively we weren’t at our best. Going into tonight’s game, they put a lot of pressure on you. Defensively, I think we could’ve made a couple changes here and there, such as not leaving Bonner to make an open three and things like that. For the most part it wasn’t too bad as offensively we are just not in a good rhythm and groove yet as hopefully that will come sooner then later.”

 (On the performance of Leonard tonight)

“I thought he did fine. He didn’t really kill us but I think he’s a good young player. He works hard as he’s getting an opportunity now with Manu out as he’s making the most of it.”

Ginobili named as No. 3 on NBA’s toughman list

To anybody who was watching the Spurs’ playoff series with Memphis, it really doesn’t come as much of a shock.

Manu Ginobili, simply stated, is a tough physical player.

Ginobili played the final five games of the Memphis series with what amounted to a broken arm. Because his team needed him, Ginobili wrapped his injured limb in a brace that appeared to be borrowed from the movie “Rollerball” and played his games.

No complaints, no fanfare.

Vintage Manu.

Sean Sweeney of Dime Magazine.com must have been watching, after voting Ginobili to No. 3 on his list of the. His award is named in honor of the former Utah forward Matt Harpring, who played through his share of physical ailments during his 11-season career.

Here’s what Sweeney had to say about Ginobili’s performance in that series and his ability to persevere through pain throughout his career.

“3. Manu Ginobili – Flopping aside, I’ve learned to respect Ginobili over the years. He went from annoying to awesome. I could watch him play all day now. Remember during this postseason when Rajon Rondo was being celebrated as the next Willis Reed? “I can’t believe this! What heart! He’s playing with one arm!”

“Well Ginobili ACTUALLY WAS playing with one arm. And he still gave Memphis 20 a night. Ginobili doesn’t care about the critics or the love. He’s just a nasty competitor (and rarely says a word about it all).

“In my opinion, he’s easily one of the toughest players who’s ever played this game.”

Truer words have never been written about “El Contusion,” who certainly qualifies as one of the toughest players in NBA history, much less among those in this generation.

Here is Sweeney’s list of the NBA’s fiercest 10 players.

1. Kobe Bryant

2. Steve Nash

3. Manu Ginobili

4. Dirk Nowitzki

5. Paul Pierce

6. Wesley Matthews

7. Carl Landry

8. Grant Hill

9.  Anthony Carter

10. Udonis Haslem 

Sweeney also mentions that  he could have included DeJuan Blair on his list somewhere.

But interestingly enough, despite all the publicity during the playoffs Rondo is nowhere on his list.