Their first-round playoff opponent finally decided, Spurs coaches went to work Thursday piecing together the beginnings of a game plan for the Memphis Grizzlies.
The team’s most pressing concern, however, was not something that could be solved by any combination Xs and Os, only ice and rest.
An MRI exam revealed guard Manu Ginobili has a sprained right elbow, and the Spurs are preparing to open the playoffs without him.
Ginobili is officially listed as doubtful for Game 1 on Sunday at the ATT Center, leaving his teammates to seize onto the semantics that “doubtful” does not mean “out.”
“Hopefully he can be ready to go once the playoffs start,” Tim Duncan said. “You cross your fingers and hope for that.”
Ginobili was injured in the first quarter of the Spurs’ 106-103 season-ending loss at Phoenix on Wednesday, when he collided awkwardly with Suns forward Grant Hill while cutting off a Duncan screen.
His injury throws a wild card into the matchup between the top-seeded Spurs (61-21) and eighth-seeded Grizzlies (46-36).
Throughout NBA postseason history, No. 1 seed has advanced in 51 of 54 first-round series. Since 2003, when the first-round format switched to a best-of-seven series, the No. 8 seed has moved on to the second round just once — in 2007, when Golden State upset Dallas.
With Ginobili and his 17.4 points per game possibly out for at least Game 1, and with Memphis a more rugged draw than the garden-variety eight seed, the Spurs are still favorites, but vulnerable.
“It’s going to be a tough, physical series,” Spurs guard Tony Parker said. “We’ll be ready.”
Even before a bum elbow threatened to rob the Spurs of their second-leading scorer, there were signs Memphis wanted this matchup. Eschewing a chance to elevate to the No. 7 seed, Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins rested starters — including bruising star forward Zach Randolph — in each of the final two games of the regular season.
At least one prominent Spurs player noticed.
“Obviously, they’ve chosen their matchup,” Duncan said.
There are reasons for Memphis to bullseye the Spurs. The Grizzlies split four games against them during the regular season, losing one in overtime. In addition, Randolph has been a load for the Spurs to handle, averaging 23 points and 14.8 rebounds against them this season.
In hindsight, perhaps Hollins made the right call simply in keeping his most important players out of harm’s way.
Ginobili’s injury might have opened the door for the Grizzlies to make franchise history. Memphis is 0-12 all-time in playoffs, having been swept in all three of its previous appearances — including in 2004 by the Spurs.
After Wednesday’s game in Phoenix, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich defended his use of Ginobili and other regulars in a fairly meaningless finale, saying he wanted to keep his starters in fighting shape heading toward the playoffs.
“They needed to get a good run, and they did, so they can keep a rhythm,” Popovich said.
Duncan, too, refused to play Monday morning quarterback.
“You can’t predict anything, and there’s no reason to second guess,” he said. “I don’t think any one of us is going to do that.”
All the Spurs can do now is look to the future, which in the short term means the prospect of opening the playoffs without Ginobili.
The spacious nature of the playoff schedule could aid his recovery. With Game 2 not until Wednesday, Ginobili could ice his elbow for a full week and miss just one game.
For now, the Spurs just need Ginobili to get well. The Xs and Os, much like their chances for advancement, look better with him than without him.
“If he isn’t able to play in the playoffs, it’s going to be devastating for us,” Antonio McDyess said. “We definitely don’t want to see that happen.”