Expect lots of ‘small ball’ from short-handed Spurs

By Mike Monroe

SALT LAKE CITY — The Spurs had just lost Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter during an otherwise stirring Saturday road win over the Clippers, but the team’s leading scorer and lone All-Star found a way to remain upbeat.

“We’re used to playing without Manu now because we already played 22 games without him,” said Tony Parker, whose 30 points and 10 assists became an afterthought after Gary Neal’s 3-point heroics in the Spurs’ 10th consecutive victory. “In that sense, it’s a comfort, but let me be clear: I still want Manu on the floor.”

Barring a minor miracle, Ginobili won’t be on the floor until after the All-Star break. He returned to San Antonio on Sunday and will have an MRI exam on his strained left oblique (rib muscle) today.

The absence of Splitter — the 6-10 center from Brazil who’s been having a breakout season — might be a greater challenge during the final three games of the nine-game rodeo road trip.

Splitter suffered a strained right calf in the first half Saturday when he pump-faked Clippers All-Star Blake Griffin into the air and drew a foul when Griffin crashed into him as he went up for a shot.

Splitter remained with the team when it traveled to Utah for tonight’s game against the Jazz at EnergySolutions Arena.

The Spurs have not given an update on Splitter’s condition. Based on coach Gregg Popovich’s comments after Saturday’s game, it does not seem likely he would hurry Splitter back into action, especially with the All-Star break coming up this weekend.

The loss of Splitter leaves the Spurs with only three legitimate big men: team captain Tim Duncan, undersized starting center DeJuan Blair and reserve Matt Bonner.

The solution is apparent.

“We’ll probably end up having to play a decent amount of ‘small ball,’?” Popovich said.

An early adapter to the small-ball concept pioneered in the NBA by one of his mentors, Don Nelson, Popovich often has employed lineups this season using only one legitimate front-court player. While he enjoys the tactical advantage such lineups often produce, circumstance has made them a strategic necessity.

After Splitter departed Saturday’s game, Popovich leaned heavily on the 35-year-old Duncan, the 13-time All-Star who has upped his production from last season despite playing a career-low 27.8 minutes per game.

Duncan logged a season-high 41 minutes and 20 seconds in Saturday’s overtime victory and grabbed 17 rebounds, matching a season high.

It was his longest stint in a regular-season game since Feb. 2, 2009, when he scored 32 points and had 15 rebounds in a road victory over the Golden State Warriors. He put in several 40-plus minute performances against Dallas in 2009 and 2010 playoff series, including 42:52 as the Spurs closed out the Mavericks in the first round April 29, 2010.

Popovich ruled out increasing Duncan’s workload, no matter how many games Splitter may miss.

“That wouldn’t be very wise,” he said. “The way he played (Saturday), those minutes, you can’t do that very often. That wouldn’t be wise for the future.”

Duncan is willing to do whatever is asked of him, but he understands the wisdom of conserving his energy for the postseason.

“I’ll give all that I can, but I don’t know what that may be,” he said. “Pop’s always been great about keeping our minutes down, especially in this compressed season.

“We have this halftime coming up with the All-Star break. We have three more games before the break and, hopefully, we can keep it together, whatever that means.”

Like Parker, Duncan believes the young players who thrived during the 22 games Ginobili missed with a hand injury have gained the requisite confidence needed to carry them through this latest misfortune.

“It helps that we’ve been through it already,” he said. “We found a way to get it together and keep it together without guys before. Hopefully, this will be the same.”


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