Spurs’ second half hinges on health

At some point tonight, T.J. Ford is expected to slip on the No. 11 Spurs jersey again.

What happens next is almost secondary to him.

“It will feel good to be in a uniform,” said Ford, the backup point guard who has missed 24 of 34 games with a torn left hamstring. “If it’s just me shooting some layups in a layup drill, I’ll take that.

“Little baby steps.”

Having endured the annual rodeo trip, and having enjoyed the annual All-Star break, the Spurs return to the ATT Center for the first time in 25 days tonight against Chicago and the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player, Derrick Rose.

They open the season’s second half content with a 24-10 record but aware that it means little without a momentum-gathering second half to serve as a springboard into the playoffs.

The chief obstacle to that goal could be a laundry list of nagging injuries that began to pile up just before All-Star Weekend.

Out since Jan. 10, Ford appears the safest bet to return tonight.

“I’d like to get him a few minutes, if I can,” coach Gregg Popovich said.

The rest of the Spurs’ walking wounded remain in doubt.

Star guard Manu Ginobili (strained oblique), reserve guard Gary Neal (strained hamstring) and backup center Tiago Splitter (strained calf) practiced to some degree Tuesday. Ginobili will not play tonight, while Neal and Splitter are designated as game-time decisions.

Rookie forward Kawhi Leonard (strained calf) did not practice and is not expected to play against the Bulls.

All of those injuries are considered minor. By the end of the seven-game homestand, it is conceivable the Spurs could be back at full strength for the first time since just after New Year’s Day.

“We need everybody ready to go and at full strength,” said point guard Tony Parker, fresh off his All-Star turn in Orlando, Fla. “If not, we aren’t going to go anywhere.”

Not all injury list inhabitants are created equal, of course.

Ginobili’s return is most critical — and his increasing brittleness must be alarming for a team that has hitched its postseason fortunes to the oft-injured star.

The 34-year-old Argentine was four games into a comeback after missing 22 games with a broken left hand when he strained an oblique muscle Feb. 18 against the Los Angeles Clippers.

All told, Ginobili appeared in just nine games during the first half. The Spurs were 17-8 without him but to a man recognize their title hopes are dead on arrival unless Ginobili returns to health and to form.

“We’re not going anywhere without Manu at 100 percent,” Parker said.

The team on the opposite sideline tonight can sympathize. Chicago’s chances of toppling the Miami “Big Three” in the Eastern Conference hinge on the health of Rose, who has been playing with a bad back.

Ginobili, meanwhile, hasn’t been completely whole for an entire postseason since 2007, perhaps not coincidentally the year of the Spurs’ most recent championship.

He was playing on a bum right ankle in 2008, missed the entire 2009 playoffs with a stress fracture in the same ankle, suffered a broken nose in a 2010 first-round series against Dallas and played last season’s Memphis series with a broken elbow.

With back-to-back maladies this season, Ginobili’s teammates are cautiously optimistic he is all injured-out.

“If he gets another one, he’s definitely cursed or something,” Parker said.

“You can’t have three injuries in a row. It’s impossible.”

For now, the Spurs remain in the familiar state of waiting for Ginobili to return from injury.

Tonight, they will at least get Ford back from the shelf. In a second half that will be built on baby steps, that will have to do.


On Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN

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