The San Antonio Spurs already slim championship hopes suffered a fatal blow Monday evening.
Specifically, to Manu Ginobili's right ankle. This was supposed to be his good one. Now, the injury and uncertainty about his left ankle he re-injured in Beijing, will cost him the rest of the season and playoffs.
Ginobili complained of soreness in mid-February and asked doctors to examine the discomfort. They concluded he had sustained a stress reaction in his right ankle and would need rest, not surgery, to heal it.
Scratch that Spurs fans, it's now a stress fracture. Doctors say Ginobili will return next season at full strength with no pain, ready to contribute at the level people are accustomed.
None of that matters now.
Monday was supposed to be a celebration of the former military star they called "The Admiral." Without David Robinson, the Spurs might be playing in a different city, with no championships, and certainly, no need to worry about ankle ailments.
Instead, Robinson's Hall-of-Fame induction alongside Michael Jordan and John Stockton, was rudely interrupted by the disastrous news no one saw coming.
Popovich figured, like everyone else, Ginobili's early Easter egg in Cleveland (He scored four points and missed all six of his three-pointers) was a mere product of his step-by-step return. He sat out 18-straight games so that when he did return, there was no chance of a relapse.
The cautious coach held Ginobili out of game action days after doctors had cleared him to play.
In his short-lived, second return, he showed flashes of the explosiveness and athleticism that have made him a championship difference maker.
There are many ways to view Monday's devastating setback.
Perhaps this finality removes any delusion the Spurs can challenge the Los Angeles Lakers for Western Conference supremacy.
Maybe the basketball gods have turned on the decade's most consistent team in favor of the vaunted Boston Celtics, Lakers and LeBron James.
David Stern wanted it this way.
The eternal San Antonio optimists will tout doctors' early assessments. The Spurs will snag a nice free agent prize, another draft pick, and employ a matured Roger Mason Jr. and George Hill next year.
Then, Ginobili will return to the fold, and nobody will want to face them, the optomists will say.
The Spurs lost two of three meetings to the Lakers, but the true fans still believed a title was possible. They have seen this team respond to everything from bomb threats to thrown objects, to Duncan's plantar-fascitis.
A true fan's job is to always believe in miracles. It will take more than one for this debacle not to become 2000 part deux.
Then, the Spurs had locked the second seed in their first title defense, only to lose Duncan weeks before the start of the playoffs. They had won too many games to miss the postseason, but lacked the superstar presence to carry them once they arrived.
They bowed in a four games to the Phoenix Suns.
Without Ginobili's services, these Spurs—professional and prideful as they are—will be lucky to win in the second round.
If the team's 9-8 March, the worst of the Duncan era, did not slaughter their faint chance at a fifth championship, surely this will.
This latest ailment, one in a season full of them, will force Tony Parker to carry the Spurs further than his tired legs can handle. Popovich will pray Duncan can return to his early season form in the next six games.
That he scored only six points in a key road game against the Cavaliers leaves little promise.
Will Roger Mason Jr. exit his hideous shooting slump? Who will run the team when Parker sits? Will George Hill work his way back into the rotation again?
Can Matt Bonner ever be trusted with significant minutes in a playoff game?
And, what about the late 30-something players on the cusp of retirement? Is Bruce Bowen's defense still menacing enough to negate his non-existent offensive game?
In the next month the Spurs will likely band together and show critics who say "they're done" that intelligence, unselfishness, and experience count for a lot.
Anyone who expects this proud franchise to buckle and give up hasn't been paying attention the last 12 years.
Ginobili will sit on the bench in a sports coat each night and torture himself. His teammates will console him and then try to move on.
Doing so will prove no easy task. The same reckless passion that has made Ginobili a
Hall-of-Fame caliber contributor now threatens to end his career.
How much longer can his 31-year-old body continue to take the nightly beatings required for him to be Manu? How much longer can he fearlessly drive to the basket with no regard for his safety?
He should never have defied Popovich and played for his national team in Beijing, critics will say. Blame it on the bronze, right?
Any fan who believes that is either a hypocrite or too disillusioned to think straight.
Ginobili's decision to play, even when he shouldn't, is what makes him special. Popovich calls him the greatest competitor he has ever coached for that reason.
The Spurs saw in Ginobili a player who could only perform at ludicrous speed. Up 20 or down 30, he would risk his career just for a loose ball in a November tilt against the L.A. Clippers.
R.C. Buford loved his passion and his commitment to winning. Popovich often stared blankly as Ginobili managed spectacular play after spectacular play.
He still does.
The list of Ginobili's remarkable defensive stands and clutch scores grow each year.
The hesitation move on Richard Hamilton for the dunk to close out the Pistons in 2005.
The Richard Jefferson pickpocket in game six of the 2003 Finals that led to a breakaway slam and the momentum-changing run.
The scintillating drives to the rim that nailed the Cavaliers' coffin shut in game four of the 2007 Finals.
The halfcourt shot in the 2005 Western Conference Finals against the 62-win Phoenix Suns.
An out-of-nowhere block on Dwyane Wade in January.
Ginobili's sporadic stupidity, sometimes borne from his passion, has also made the Spurs suffer.
In 2006, he turned the ball over with several seconds left and allowed Kevin Martin to nail a game-winner in the first round.
He drilled a three-pointer to cap an 18-point second half against the Dallas Mavericks in a heartbreaking game seven loss. Ginobili's trey, which gave the Spurs their first lead of that contest, sent the crowd into a frenzy.
I was there. Fans hugged and cried and cheered at an ear-splitting volume.
The Spurs had come back from a 22-point deficit to take the lead. Then, Ginobili disobeyed Popovich's simple command to not foul anyone in the act of shooting.
His boneheaded hack on Dirk Nowitzki still lives in infamy.
As does his mistake on the next play, when he held the ball too long and forgot to dish it to a wide open Robert Horry.
The Spurs lost 119-111 in overtime.
Still, Popovich has never wavered in his support for Ginobili because the good has always outweighed the bad.
Ginobili bagged 13 points in the fourth quarters of the Spurs' last two title clinchers. If that does not qualify as clutch, what does?
Perhaps this refresher course will convert the remaining skeptics.
Near the end of a game against the Pistons in late spring 2007, Ginobili threw an errant pass that landed in the second row.
He put the ball back in Ginobili's hands and watched the Argentine sink four critical free throws and a three-pointer.
Those fourth quarter heroics won the contest for the Spurs.
That's Manu. That's why this latest injury hurts so much.
The Spurs cannot compete with the likes of the Lakers or Celtics sans his explosiveness and unpredictability.
A hobbled, worn Duncan and overextended Parker can only do so much.
The Spurs' worst stretch in years will only get worse Tuesday night if the suddenly unguardable Kevin Durant and his Oklahoma City Thunder beat them again.
The dream of a healthy Ginobili, for this season at least, and another odd-year run to the NBA Finals is over.
The memories will last forever. Cherish them.
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