By Jeff McDonald
Manu Ginobili flung up a final few jumpers at the end of practice Saturday, then wandered over to do time with the gathered media.
What the Spurs guard said mattered far less than how he looked and felt.
Unlike the eve of last year’s postseason, there was no constricting blue brace strapped to Ginobili’s right arm. His elbow is fine. Hand, too. The ankles, knees, nose and abdomen? All shipshape, thanks for asking.
Incredibly for this time of year in South Texas, Ginobili doesn’t even report any allergies.
“No complaints,” he said.
For the Spurs, hoping to parlay this year’s No. 1 seed in the Western Conference into a deeper run than last year, that is certainly good news.
The Spurs open Game 1 of their first-round series against eighth-seeded Utah this afternoon at the ATT Center, their 34-year-old Argentine playmaker intact.
It is a stark change from, well, the past four postseasons.
Ginobili hasn’t been completely healthy and available for an entire playoff run since 2007. Not coincidentally, that is the last time the Spurs won an NBA title.
With point guard Tony Parker playing the best basketball of his life, Tim Duncan looking years away from retirement and Ginobili whole, the Spurs enter this year’s tournament liking their chances of taking home Larry O’Brien Trophy No. 5.
“We’re confident. We’re playing well,” said Duncan, the Spurs’ 36-year-old captain. “Above all, we are healthy.”
It’s a big “above all.”
The Spurs were confident last year, too, before disaster hit on the last day of the regular season in Phoenix.
Ginobili was squeezing between the Suns’ Grant Hill and a Duncan screen when his right elbow became trapped, hyperextending ligaments and fracturing bone.
He missed Game 1 against Memphis, which the Spurs lost en route to becoming the second No. 1 seed in the best-of-7 era to tumble in the first round.
“An injury messes up everything,” said Ginobili, who averaged 13.2 points and 4.8 assists off the bench after the All-Star break. “When you are hurt, you think more about your injury than your opponent and what you’ve got to do.”
Ever since the 2007 championship, the Spurs have been able to faithfully write “catastrophic Ginobili injury” on their April calendar, just before the words “plan early vacation.”
This year, perhaps Ginobili got it out of the way early, missing 22 games with a broken left hand from January to early February.
Some of the playoff injuries Ginobili could play through (ankle ligament impingement, 2008; fractured nose, 2010; fractured elbow, 2011). Some he could not (stress fracture, right leg, 2009).
Given the hardscrabble manner in which the Jazz play, there’s no guarantee Ginobili makes it out of this year’s first round unscathed.
Utah doesn’t rank among the NBA leaders in fouls for nothing.
“Every time we play Utah, it’s a lot of hits and a lot of hacking,” Parker said.
Ginobili’s injured elbow was not the sole reason the Spurs lost to Memphis last season — Zach Randolph and the rest of the Grizzlies had something to do with it, too — but it didn’t help.
If nothing else, the pratfall of last April served to remind the Spurs of how much has to go right to win a championship, and how little time this particular incarnation has left to add another one.
“We don’t talk about it, but they’re intelligent people,” coach Gregg Popovich said. “They know they’re not going to play together forever. That’s why last year was such a big disappointment.”
Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are the longest-tenured trio of teammates in the NBA, and the calendar never stops flipping forward.
“This year, I’m sure it’s in the back of their minds,” Popovich said. “They know they’re getting closer and closer to where that group is not going to be there.”
This afternoon, unlike last season, that championship-winning core will be intact to start the playoffs.
Because of that, the Spurs like their chances.