Healthy Manu leads to happy Spurs

SAN ANTONIO -- The San Antonio Spurs are accustomed to being ignored, like a Twitter account with an egg avatar and three followers. It almost makes sense they'd be the opponent for the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, when an inordinate amount of attention is being thrown at a No. 7 seed. Everyone was so worried about the Lakers they forgot to ask one of the more important questions of the playoffs: How good can the Spurs be with Manu Ginobili?

The first response won't scare anyone in Oklahoma City or Miami. That's fine. San Antonio has weeks to mount a greater challenge to the league's elite. But Ginobili was good enough on Sunday to make the difference between the Spurs and a scoring-challenged Lakers team without Kobe Bryant.

Ginobili missed all of April's games with a hamstring injury before returning for a 12-minute tuneup in the Spurs' regular-season finale. It's not as if he'd scorched the nets all seeason, ither; his 11.8 points per game marked his lowest scoring average since he was a rookie.

There was a stretch a few seasons ago when Ginobili was the Spurs' most important player, which made his near-annual playoff injuries even more devastating. Tony Parker assumed the main role last season, and Tim Duncan has been more reminiscent of his days as the league MVP of late, so Ginobili hasn't been quite so essential. On a day when the sideshow was words -- from Kobe Bryant's in-game tweets to Gregg Popovich responding to a reporter's pregame plea for crossword puzzle assistance with a couple of handwritten suggestions delivered just before tipoff -- how about we describe Ginobili as "beneficial"?

For a while it looked as if the Lakers could steal Game 1, as a guy with the Twitter handle @kobebryant noted. It wasn't happening on Ginobili's watch. The 35-year-old 2-guard terminated any thoughts the Lakers had of snatching this game when he scored eight points in the final 90 seconds of the third quarter, extending a seven-point Spurs lead to 13 and providing the final separation the Spurs needed in their 91-79 victory.

There wasn't much other glory to be found on either side. The Lakers shot 41 percent, the Spurs 38 percent. The Lakers had 18 turnovers. Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol combined for 36 points and 31 rebounds, but the Spurs' defense gave them just enough double-team attention to force the Lakers guards to take as many shots as their big men.

For the Spurs, Duncan missed open jumpers. Tony Parker seemed unable to get past third gear, and missed 13 of 21 shots. It was Ginobili's 18 points off the bench that stood, in part because they nearly doubled the Laker reserves' combined output of 10.

"It was great to have Manu back," Popovich said. "He does what he does. He creates problems for the opponent. He's got a great will, a great desire."

"Huge spark for us," Duncan said. "That's what we've always gotten from him.

"You can see he's got his rhythm."

Ginobili said he was "very happy that I played a solid game, that [the hamstring] didn't hurt, that I could score a little bit."

Ginobili's modest self-assessment was the appropriate level of praise for this Spurs victory. They struggled longer than they should have before putting away a team that couldn't establish an offensive rhythm and didn't protect the ball with the care the playoffs mandate. The Spurs want Kawhi Leonard to play a larger part in their success -- Ginobili's old role wouldn't be bad template -- and he scored only eight points. Danny Green couldn't take advantage of his matchup against Steve Nash (who isn't the best defender to start with and had trouble moving in his first game back from his own hamstring injury).

But the Spurs had Ginobili looking like Ginobili. He traditionally has finished the first and third quarters with a flourish; he has been a starting-caliber player, and those times often find him on the court against backups. The end of the third quarter was when he struck Sunday … even if it meant taking an ill-advised 3-pointer.

"I thought I had a little window there to try to risk … and it went good," Ginobili said.

And if Popovich didn't like it, well, he should know the drill by now.

"Sometimes players do take some risks, because we believe that we need something to get us going," Ginobili said. "After 11 years, he kind of knows the way I play … and I seek my moment. It was one of those times."

Told that Matt Bonner believes Popovich's hair has turned white because of Ginobili, Ginobili observed, "He lost a bunch too. We both did."

Yeah, Ginobili's bald spot has grown more prominent over the years. There's no reversing it. What he does hope is the two off days before Game 2 on Wednesday, plus the additional recovery time afforded by Sunday's afternoon start, will allow his hamstring to be fully ready for the next contest.

If the other Spurs can reach the level of restoration he showed Sunday, we might have to start talking about them again.