NEWARK, N.J. — A small crowd of students gathered outside the nondescript community college gym in midtown Manhattan on Friday, straining for a glimpse of the NBA team that had invaded their school.
Beyond the closed double doors, Spurs guard Manu Ginobili was going through a full-team, full-contact practice that would determine his availability for tonight’s game in New Jersey.
After about an hour, Ginobili emerged with the answer to one question, immediately giving rise to a host of others. Yes, he would play against the Nets, making his return from a broken left hand after a 39-day absence.
“I don’t have great expectations for the first couple of games,” Ginobili said. “I just want to contribute, help a little bit. Just try to fit in again.”
Tonight at the Prudential Center, Ginobili rejoins a team on a roll. The Spurs went 15-7 in the 22 games he missed since his Jan. 2 injury in Minnesota, and own the NBA’s longest current winning streak at six games.
The Spurs (18-9) have ridden a wave of team chemistry to the top of the Southwest
Division, one spot below Oklahoma City in the Western
Conference. Players and coaches alike recognize the team might have to push pause on all of that to reintegrate the 34-year-old Ginobili into the rotation.
“Maybe it screws us up for a while, maybe it doesn’t,” coach Gregg Popovich said.
It has to be done. The alternative — not reintegrating Ginobili — is too absurd even for words.
“No disrespect to my young teammates, but I don’t care how good they’re playing,” All-Star point guard Tony Parker said. “I’ll play with Manu any time of the day, even if he’s 50 percent.”
Popovich will ease Ginobili along slowly, perhaps bringing him off the bench at first, almost certainly limiting his playing time for a while.
Asked whether he has targeted a specific number of minutes for Ginobili tonight in New Jersey, Popovich said, “Not many.”
In truth, Ginobili has been gently prodding to get back on the floor since the start of the rodeo trip Monday in Memphis. As the days passed, Ginobili’s request became progressively more forceful.
Ginobili said he has full confidence in his surgically repaired fifth metacarpal. He doesn’t feel compelled to subdue his instinctive, breakneck style to accommodate it.
“I went for a couple steals (in practice), and I felt good,” Ginobili said.
That’s notable given the way Ginobili injured himself in the first place — making a feverish swipe at Minnesota’s Anthony Tolliver for a steal.
Ginobili admits he is in no kind of playing shape after the extended time off, but argued the only way to get there is on the court.
“I want to play,” said Ginobili, who was averaging a team-best 17.4 points at the time of his injury. “I need to be there. I can’t play one-on-one all year long.”
Having finally carved out an hour in the lockout-condensed schedule for a full practice, Popovich figures now is the time.
“He’s Manu,” Popovich said. “When he’s ready to go, you don’t care if you’re winning, losing. It doesn’t matter. He’s coming back.”
Ginobili’s return won’t come seamlessly.
Popovich will have to tweak a rotation that has produced results to find an increasing number of minutes for him. Somebody who is playing well — be it Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Gary Neal, Richard Jefferson, maybe even Parker — will lose time.
The Spurs might have to take a small step back in order to take a giant leap forward. If that’s the cost to get Ginobili back and in stride come playoff time, they are willing to pay it.
“We need Manu bad,” Parker said. “If we want to go anywhere — anywhere — in the playoffs, we need Manu 100 percent. It’s not even a question.”