The San Antonio Spurs' season turned on Jan. 2 in Minnesota, not Jan. 29 in an overtime loss at Dallas.
With the Timberwolves scoring on the defenseless Spurs like His Airness at a high school rec-league tournament, Manu Ginobili tried to swipe the ball from Anthony Tolliver and instead fractured the fifth metacarpal on his left hand. He tends to use that arm when he shoots.
Ginobili underwent surgery three days later and missed the next 22 games. He returned Feb. 11 in a contest at New Jersey then suffered a strained left oblique the following Saturday that sidelined him for two more weeks.
Few could have imagined then that San Antonio would begin its final back-to-back of the campaign on Wednesday with the top seed in hand and a plausible path to a fifth championship.
The Spurs sewed up the Western Conference’s best mark by hammering the hapless, sputtering Portland Trail Blazers, 124-89, on Monday night. Winning the season series with Oklahoma City 2-1 afforded San Antonio the tiebreaker that clinched home-court advantage through at least the Western Conference Finals before consecutive closing road dates against the Suns and Warriors.
If Gregg Popovich did not order Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker to skip the flight to Phoenix, he at least instructed them to schlep a snazzy sport coat or two.
The Big Three should look dapper tonight while they watch Steve Nash play perhaps for the final time at US Airways Center in a Phoenix uniform. The Jazz eliminated the Suns from eighth-seed contention with a Tuesday triumph at Energy Solutions Arena.
With little at stake and Game 1 looming as soon as Saturday, Popovich will err on the side of paranoid. The last time Ginobili battled the Suns this late in the year, he hyperextended an elbow running through an unremarkable screen. Or worse, as some reports suggested, he broke an arm.
The coach juggled encasing his most important player in a protective wrap versus Ginobili helping a lost unit regain its rhythm. Duncan had turned an ankle weeks earlier, and the Spurs' sprained, six-game slide necessitated giving the regulars some minutes on the season’s final evening.
Popovich was right then, but he will not waste the gift now of a clear postseason roadmap.
Not with Duncan bagging more than 60 percent of his shot attempts in six consecutive drubbings that showcased both the Spurs' depth and volcanic scoring punch. Not with the franchise foundation teleporting back to 2003 in tilts where pabulum size ranked as a supposed chief deficiency.
Not with Parker’s MVP-level leadership and relentless rim assaults leading the Spurs’ rise from late-April burn victims to a scalding squad with flames that can stretch to June.
Not with an impeccable chemistry and an attenuate winning DNA that even Bill Nye and James Watson would struggle to explain.
Not with the team one more Ginobili ailment away from sniffing repeat catastrophe.
San Antonio endured the ultimate misfortune when the Argentine’s freak injury followed Lionel Hollins maneuvering Memphis from a potential sixth-place finish down to eighth, just where the coach wanted them.
The Mavericks avoided a Grizzlies team that won three of the four meetings and instead dispatched a Blazers outfit that loves to tease just before its annual first-round implosion. Portland escaped and remedied that routine pratfall this month by missing the 2012 playoffs altogether.
The L.A. Lakers limped to the finish line but still managed the most favorable opening draw in the conference. Wouldn’t the Spurs have handled the New Orleans Hornets with no David West? As much as Chris Paul did to torch L.A. in two New Orleans victories, Parker had out-dueled him in a previous seven-game clash.
CP3 could not win that mismatch with Phil Jackson’s loaded Lakers by himself.
Zach Randolph had plenty of help when he connived Antonio McDyess’s heroic but inadequate defense. Getting a hand up or staying between the ball and the basket was rarely enough for wounded San Antonio.
The Grizzlies finished one triple overtime defeat shy of a 3-1 series lead in the next round with the precocious Thunder.
How often does a seed that low boast a defensive facility and a shocking cohesion that could have knocked out three other title hopefuls?
If the Grizzlies move up to face the Mavs and not the Spurs, does the season still end with Mark Cuban groping the Larry O’Brien Trophy?
The Spurs had no time to spoon with hardware when the nightmarish opponent they needed to dodge grabbed that red ball, threw it at them and said, “You’re out.”
Popovich should expect better luck beginning this weekend.
For starters, the Jazz play like the eighth-best team in the West. The last time San Antonio and Utah squared off at relative full strength, the Spurs lead swelled to 25 before a late rally made the 114-104 final score look more cosmetic.
The next night, in a must-win joust for the Jazz, when Popovich responded to a “ridiculous” schedule by leaving Duncan, Parker and Ginobili in the Alamo City, Tyrone Corbin’s squad managed just 91 points in furious come-from-behind fashion.
Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson can drain mid-range jumpers and score from both boxes in the post, but both will lose Duncan and Tiago Splitter in a double-figure number of pick-and-rolls instigated by Parker or Ginobili before halftime of Game 1.
Utah will provide the customary spook job a top seed should expect as opposed to the Exorcist-level scare Memphis delivered 12 months ago.
Barring a miracle roster swap that violates the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, Shane Battier will not show up to stick another go-ahead triple hours before his wife gives birth. Barring further unmerited misery, Ginobili will help Parker space the floor if the team needs to send the playoff opener into overtime with a three-point response.
Richard Jefferson has disappeared from San Antonio’s rotation for good. Someone with more capable clutch hands will hoist that last look.
The skepticism and discomposure that accompanied the Spurs' high-profile ouster even prompted Parker to tell a French newspaper (via Yahoo! Sports) last May, “We can no longer say that we’re competing for a championship.”
There should never have been doubt, though, when Parker’s name surfaced in trade rumors that R.C. Buford and Popovich would not jettison a former Finals MVP because of a wobbly, ill-advised answer to a question that no one forced a writer across the pond to ask.
George Hill became an unfortunate sacrificial lamb and a draft-night casualty in an exchange with the Indiana Pacers. Credit Buford for replacing his coach’s former “favorite player” with one of the five best rookies from the 2011 class.
Kawhi Leonard’s career length, if he continues to live in gyms, will mirror his impressive wingspan.
The front office engineered other roster improvements with what most pundits deemed scant resources.
Danny Green emerged from a supposed scrap heap to start on many nights while averaging nine points in 23 minutes. The third-year North Carolina product plays bothersome defense, hits corner treys with numbing proficiency and converts crafty drives that seem to develop at the pace of a stubborn, hackneyed romantic comedy.
Laud Buford for turning Jefferson’s albatross contract into a still-balmy Stephen Jackson at the trade deadline.
“I still make love to pressure,” he said during his makeshift introductory press conference after a practice.
Even if pressure sometimes fails to return his phone calls, that braggadocio can help the Spurs in the postseason trenches.
Splitter garnered a consistent role as the team’s second 6’11” rim protector and roll man and maybe its best bench performer aside from Ginobili.
Duncan entered a time warp that has stretched from January to now, dropping 16 points in a third quarter against the Houston Rockets and pouring in 28 points on the Grizzlies to seal a season sweep of the Spurs' reigning tormentors.
Gary Neal continued to drill perimeter looks at opportune moments. Patty Mills arrived as an intriguing backup point guard option after T.J. Ford retired. DeJuan Blair and Matt Bonner have contributed in a significant way for a frontcourt with grit that exceeds its collective athleticism.
Boris Diaw, miscast for most of his career as a prospective go-to option, fit as a bulky but mobile forward capable of filling in the blanks.
Parker carried the Spurs when no one and nothing else seemed to click. He belongs in the same MVP discussion that includes LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Paul.
Ginobili, despite these developments, remains the team’s most important player. That’s why Jan. 2 may rank as the setback that buttressed San Antonio’s renewed championship-caliber mettle.
With Ginobili shelved for 30 games, the rest of the role call had to figure some things out that might otherwise have remained Alamodome-sized question marks.
Leonard, Green, Neal and even James Anderson seized opportunities to distinguish themselves in El Contusion’s absence.
The Timberwolves rolled to a 106-96 victory the night a swipe gone awry threatened to torpedo a promising start. That dropped the Spurs to 0-2 away from the AT&T Center. They relinquished three more road contests before breaking through in Orlando, where the Magic suited up for the third time in as many nights.
Along the way, San Antonio squandered a 14-point lead in Miami and lost by 22, flopped courtesy of a 20-point whipping in Houston and became the first foe to allow New Orleans to top the century mark.
“Yeah, we’re a defensive juggernaut,” Popovich said (via Spurs Nation) after the Hornets squeaker.
The Spurs coach still makes love to mordancy.
When the deplorable Sacramento Kings snapped San Antonio’s 9-0 start at home, it was fair to wonder if the Spurs could unnerve the Washington Generals without Ginobili. The early returns in other arenas presaged a performance similar to another Washington basketball team. Remember when the Wizards flirted with an 0-41 road mark in the 2010-2011 campaign?
Yeah, the Spurs—at times—looked that awful.
What has transpired since Jan. 2, however, is as remarkable as any regular-season feat in the Duncan era.
A roster with an abrasive mix of veteran savvy and unbridled youth amalgamated.
Leonard figured out how to score with more frequency at the professional level and augmented his sedulous defense. Green proved that a quick start was no fluke. The Spurs own that tiebreaker with the Thunder because he drained the three buckets that stymied Oklahoma City’s botched rally from 27 down.
Parker zipped to the basket and lit up defenders with his smoldering jumper while directing the offense with the poise of Avery Johnson. He passed the Alamo City’s favorite Cajun floor general on the franchise’s all-time assists list in a thumping of the Thunder.
Parker engaged Splitter in a beautiful on-court relationship that turned the Brazilian into one of the league’s most efficient interior players.
Duncan kept dunking and swishing mid-range jumpers, despite catcalls from the stands in many cities that the 35-year-old should retire.
How will playoff rivals handle the size of the greatest power forward ever and his heart? Ginobili’s absence forced Parker and Popovich to involve No. 21 in the offense much more than last year. Good move. He is rested and far from geriatric these days.
The Spurs had to win important January and February games without Ginobili to know they could win in May with him.
San Antonio produced other stirring victories in Salt Lake City, L.A., Boston and Oklahoma City.
The Spurs put a winless road start in the rear-view mirror and now own the best away mark in the conference. Add to that the most wins against plus-.500 teams, and no one needs to ask if this team is ready for the rigors that beckon.
Popovich’s bunch has ground its way to the forefront of the championship conversation. Most crowned the Thunder, Heat or Bulls while a work stoppage still enveloped league operations. One squad from that trio was destined to hoist the hardware in a season teams might never play.
The Spurs have since earned their spot next to those front-runners with a gutsy campaign that included sweeping a pair of back-to-back-to-backs.
The previous eight triumphs came by an average of 21 points. Among the victims: The Lakers twice, the Suns and the Grizzlies.
While San Antonio’s defensive efficiency suggests a fatal slippage, the Spurs commit the third-fewest fouls in the NBA. They have constructed a coverage primed for even more improvement come this weekend, when Popovich has time to game-plan for the unit on the opposite bench.
When they needed just one victory to lock up the top seed, they suffocated the Blazers on Monday. Portland connected on just 36 percent of its shots.
Ginobili is back, and so are the Spurs.
Are they prepared for what comes next? Thanks to the uncertainty and trepidation of Jan. 2, and the 30 games Ginobili missed, the answer is clear.
Yes, they’re ready.