Mavericks brace for a whole lot of Manu

DALLAS --Shawn Marion plays small forward and Manu Ginobili plays shooting guard, but there's little doubt who'll check whom when the Mavericks

and Spurs tip off their first-round playoff series tonight.

"I think so," said Marion, the Mavs' defensive stopper throughout the season. "He’s a slippery guy. Guys that are scorers, you’ve got to make them play defense and take away the easy buckets. We’ve got to make sure we put him in pick-and-rolls and situations where he has to play defense as well. You can’t just let guys have free range on both ends of the floor. At the same time it’s just a matter of us buckling down."

Forcing Ginobili to work on the defensive end will likely fall more to Mavs shooting guard Caron Butler, who will also get his time, along with DeShawn Stevenson, Jason Kidd and possibly Roddy Beaubois against the shifty, whirling-Argentine, who will play in his 108th playoff game after missing all of last season's series against the Mavs.

"It was my first playoff games that I ever missed. It was really heartbreaking watching it from the outside," Ginobili said.

"Dallas is special. We play so many times with them the last few years it makes it exciting. They have a lot of talent, they've been playing great, they have the home-court advantage. It's going to be rough, but we're looking forward to the challenge."

For the first time in two years, the 6-foot-6 Ginobili is healthy and playing like it. After a slow and cautious start to his eighth season after ankle surgery, Ginobili, 32, has relieved all doubts -- including his own -- that he could return to his slashing, attacking, playmaking form.

"I wasn't thinking about my ankles, my fracture or anything, I just wasn't thinking that I was going to be able to get to the rim," Ginobili said, referring to the first half of the season. "I get to the rim, I shot bad shots, I wasn't going over the bigs well, and it started happening in February and I really didn't do anything different. I guess it was just a matter of time."

Since the All-Star break, Ginobili has increased his scoring from 13.4 points a game to 21.4 and his shooting percentage jumped from 40.3 to 48.1.

"Ginobili has been their motor lately," Mavs forward Dirk Nowitzki said.

He's had no choice. Point guard Tony Parker missed a quarter of the season with various injuries, including a month-long stretch from ealry March to early April with a broken right hand. That's when Ginobili really came alive and led the Spurs to their best month of the season that included wins against Cleveland, Boston, Orlando and a 19-point blowout of the Lakers in Los Angeles.

"When Tony went down I found the ball in my hands for long times and I knew I was going to close out games with the possiblity of making most of the deicisons," Ginobili said. "And that really helped."

It would be hard to imagine Spurs coach removing Ginobili from the starting lineup at this point. So the question is who will start with him in the backcourt. George Hill, who played brilliantly in moving from starting shooting guard to point guard in Parker's absence, is a game-time decision with a sprained right ankle. Parker has filled a reserve role in the six games he's played since returning and there was some thought that Hill would continue to start in the playoffs.

Either way, Ginobili, the flying Argentine once again, will be the center attention.