MINNEAPOLIS — As the Spurs’ charter flight lifted off from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport late on the night of Jan. 2, uncertainty was in the air.
In the back of the team plane, All-Star guard Manu Ginobili sat with his newly broken left hand in a splint. His fifth metacarpal had been fractured in a 106-96 loss to Minnesota hours earlier. A timetable for his return was unknown.
Meanwhile, the remaining Spurs braced for unseen turbulence ahead.
“Very pensive,” is how forward Matt Bonner described that flight back to Texas. “Obviously, there was that kind of unknown question mark.”
Tonight at the Target Center, the Spurs return to the scene of the incident for a rematch with the fast-rising Timberwolves. The nosedive many expected in light of Ginobili’s latest injury hasn’t happened yet.
The Spurs are 9-5 since Ginobili went on the inactive list after swiping a little too vigorously at Minnesota’s Anthony Tolliver.
Though their status in the standings remains a day-to-day, win-to-win proposition, they left home for Minnesota and the start of a rugged three-game road trip in first place in the Southwest Division and third in the Western Conference.
“We have confidence in each other, confidence in our coaching staff and our system,” Bonner said. “It was just a matter of having other people step up.”
What the Spurs (12-7) couldn’t have known as they left Minnesota broken and beaten earlier this month was that 24-year-old swingman Danny Green was a bona fide NBA rotation player.
That second-year center Tiago Splitter was a burgeoning playmaker on the Spurs’ second unit. That Kawhi Leonard, a 20-year-old rookie a month into his NBA career, could make an impact doing the unenviable — starting for Ginobili.
Yes, the whole thing still feels fragile, as if stitched together with bailing wire, and the Spurs could be one bad road trip away from a tailspin. But for now, they have survived the first three weeks with Ginobili in a sport coat.
Three down, and perhaps just three more weeks to go.
“I don’t know why, but I always thought things were going to work out,” said Green, a third-year forward who has been the surprise of the Spurs’ season so far. “We have a good team here, a pretty good foundation. When one guy goes down, another guy steps in.”
Point guard Tony Parker recalls a sense of urgency in the wake of Ginobili’s injury.
“We didn’t panic,” Parker said, before chuckling. “I’m not going to say I knew Danny Green was going to play like that, but we didn’t panic.”
Coach Gregg Popovich credits All-Star forward Tim Duncan, the team’s captain and, at 35, its oldest player, for helping keep the Spurs’ season together after Ginobili went down.
“We all feed off his leadership and consistency,” Bonner said.
It is a role Duncan can fill even on nights his shot isn’t falling, or when Popovich is limiting his minutes.
“I’m still a big part of this team,” Duncan said. “I want to be a leader on and off the floor. I want Pop and the rest of the guys to count on me to do that.”
That’s not to say the Spurs don’t miss Ginobili. They do, especially on the road when the degree of difficulty gets exponentially higher.
Including a pair of road losses with Ginobili on the floor, the Spurs are 2-6 away from the ATT Center this season.
“Not having Manu is huge,” Popovich said. “He gives everybody a lot of confidence, especially on the road when things are not going well. Manu seems to have a knack for scoring at those times, or doing something else to change momentum.”
Though the future is still very much up in the air until Ginobili is back in uniform, the Spurs tonight hope to demonstrate how far they’ve come since last leaving Minnesota.
“I didn’t have any doubts,” Green said. “I figured we’d be fine. Everybody else doubted us, but I didn’t have any.”