Replacing Manu a group effort

The Spurs had yet to play the Timberwolves in their first game of 2012 on Monday night, so the loss of leading scorer Manu Ginobili to a fractured fifth metacarpal in his left hand was still half a day away.

Point guard Tony Parker watched as Ginobili put up a few final jumpers at the team’s morning shootaround at the Target Center, then took a seat and discussed how vital Ginobili had been to a 3-1 start Parker deemed encouraging.

There was improvement still to be made on defense, the three-time All-Star said, but the team’s offensive efficiency early on after such a short training camp had been better than anyone expected.

“Offensively we’re playing really well,” he said, “especially Manu. He’s making shots and playing really well. Really, everybody is playing well, but Manu is already playing like an All-Star, and we are all feeding off him.”

About 10 hours later, Parker was shaking his head and wondering why the basketball gods had cursed Ginobili, and the Spurs, yet again.

“It’s a tough break, literally,” Parker said in a grim locker room after the 106-96 loss.

Beginning with tonight’s game against the Golden State Warriors at the ATT Center, the Spurs will have to find ways to win without their Argentine heart and soul, whose timeline for a return has yet to be determined.

If the history of other NBA players who have suffered the same injury on their shooting hand is an indication, it will be at least a month before Parker and his teammates can expect to see Ginobili in uniform again.

Parker suffered a similar injury on his right (shooting) hand on March 6, 2010 — a non-displaced fracture of the fourth metacarpal — but returned sooner than initially predicted. He missed exactly one month, returning April 6. The Spurs played 16 games while Parker was sidelined.

Chicago’s Carlos Boozer suffered a fractured fifth metacarpal on his right hand a few days before the Bulls went to training camp last season. He was sidelined for eight weeks, missing the entire preseason and the first 15 games of the regular season.

With a compressed schedule in this post-lockout season, one month’s worth of games would require the Spurs to play 17 games without Ginobili.

James Anderson, the 6-foot-6 second-year guard from Oklahoma State, will move into Ginobili’s spot in the starting lineup for tonight’s game, promising to get in extra work at every opportunity in an attempt to minimize the impact of Ginobili’s loss.

Gary Neal, an All-Rookie First Team selection last season, will return to the lineup tonight after recovering from an appendectomy he underwent Dec. 12. He went through a couple of practices with the Spurs Development League team, the Austin Toros, but doesn’t know what his role will be tonight.

“My role is to be the best basketball player I can be with the time I do get, whether it’s 10 minutes, 20 minutes or 30 minutes,” he said.

“Just try to help the team win games.”

Neither Neal nor Anderson are under any illusion about replacing what Ginobili means to the Spurs, and their teammates aren’t expecting that from them, either.

“You can’t replace a guy like Manu,” said small forward Richard Jefferson, who is second on the team in 3-pointers made behind Ginobili.

What they must do, Jefferson said, is not shrink from the opportunity and responsibility of having to do more.

“We’re just going to have to step up and use this as an opportunity for a lot of the new guys getting minutes for the first time, (rookie) Kawhi (Leonard), James. It’s a good opportunity for them, plus we’ve got Gary Neal coming back, and he can help with some of the scoring load.

“But Manu’s got those intangibles, the defense, the big plays, the big shots. We just have to do it as a team now.”

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