After opening the season on a 29-0 franchise record run at The AT&T Center the Spurs on Saturday night played home game No. 30 at a distinct handicap but with one huge bonus.
The return of Manu Ginobili offset the absence of three starters as consecutive home win No. 30 went in the books after a 104-94 Spurs win over the Sacramento Kings.
Ginobili’s mere presence was guaranteed to give the Spurs and their fans an emotional lift and when he made his first appearance in a game in 31 days, entering with 5:18 remaining in the first quarter, he got a standing ovation from the sellout crowd.
What could not have been anticipated was another vintage Ginobili performance but he surprised everyone, including himself. In just 15 minutes and 26 seconds of court time the 38-year-old Argentine made 8-of-11 shots, 5-of-5 free throws, and scored 22 points.
“First of all, two days ago I wasn’t expecting to play,” Ginobili said. “I talked to (Coach Gregg Popovich) and felt good and said, ‘Let’s just go for a few minutes.’ I’m not used to those type of numbers. I don’t even take 11 shots. It was very unexpected.
“Of course, I’m very happy. Besides the stat sheet, I felt explosive. I was able to soar. I was free. I was in a good mood, and fine. That was the main thing.”
Sixty percent of the Spurs starting lineup was not in uniform against the Kings. Popovich already had decided that power forward Tim Duncan and shooting guard Danny Green needed to skip the game to get some rest. When center LaMarcus Aldridge informed the coach he needed to miss the game because of a migraine headache, Popovich shrugged and stuck with his pre-conceived rest plan.
“The convergence is unfortunate,” Popovich said before tipoff, “but this is three (games) in four nights for Timmy, and then a back-to-back coming up. So he was going to be out anyway. We didn’t know that LaMarcus was going to have a migraine. And then we had decided after the last back-to-back that Danny needed to finally get some rest because he’s been overplayed. So we’re missing three instead of two, but that’s the way it goes.”
Popovich hinted that Ginobili might be able to partially counteract their absences. He had witnessed three practice sessions conducted in recent days to test his physical abilities after surgery was required to repair a testicular injury suffered in a win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Feb. 3 and felt confident enough to give him the green light to suit up.
What nobody knew was what effect the surgery, and the recovery process that followed, might have on Ginobili’s aggressive style of play. He will play the rest of the season wearing a protective cup, which helped him leap the mental hurdle he faced returning from an injury he called the worst, and most painful, of his 14-year Spurs career.
The answer came immediately, as Ginobili looked very much at ease on the court, able to play without fear.
“I’m protected in the sensitive area,” he said. “The other guys better protect their knees now.”
In truth, Ginobili had to convince himself he could play without flinching. As much as he believed he would not recall the intense pain that followed standing up to take a charge and then taking a knee to the groin from New Orleans big man Ryan Anderson if the situation presented itself again, he knew he had to experience game action to know.
“If you ask me before a game, ‘I’d say Nah. No,’ “he said. “Then in the middle of a play, you don’t know what you’re going to do. You have to make a decision in a second, and you’ve been doing one thing for 20 years. It’s hard to change. I played and I felt confident.”
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Ginobili’s impact in Saturday’s game was immediate. By the time he had finished his first stint on the court he had scored seven points and helped the Spurs extend a one-point lead to nine points.
Ginobili picked up the scoring slack for All-Star Kawhi Leonard, who went scoreless in the first quarter before exploding for 25 points in the final three periods.
Leonard appreciated his readiness.
“He came out looking fresh,” Leonard said. “His mental focus was still in the game. I’m sure he was watching every game while he was out, putting himself on the floor.
“He did a great job tonight. We missed him.”
With Aldridge and Duncan sitting out, Popovich shuffled his remaining four big men in and out of the game and got decent production for all of them. David West (12 points), Boris Diaw (11), Boban Marjanovic (9) and Matt Bonner (6) combined for 38 points and 17 rebounds.
Bonner also was playing for the first time in a long time – he suffered a left calf injury on Feb. 5 and had not played since – but started the second half on a unit that held Sacramento scoreless through the first 5:10 of the third quarter. He also made 2-of-3 3-point shots.
Top Image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff. Photo by Scott Ball.