Auto-robotic response upon hearing the news Manu Ginobili is out for the rest of the season: “The Spurs are done, they’re toast, peace out, etc., etc. …” Whether you said it with a huge grin on your face as a Lakers fan, or with an “Oops I crapped my pants” look as a Spurs fan, it was an easy conclusion to jump to.
Are they really done, though? We’re talking about the same team that went to the Western Conference Finals in ’08 and — just ask the Lakers — were pretty damn close to winning that series. The Spurs had a big lead in Game 1 and blew it; they were blown out in Game 2; won Game 3; lost Game 4 by two points after the whole Brent Barry/Derek Fisher call-or-no-call; and lost Game 5 by eight points. Realistically, that series could have gone 4-1 San Antonio’s way.
While the obvious scapegoat in that series was Ginobili’s poor play — he couldn’t push off on his injured ankle and attack the rim, and his jumper was off — the Spurs’ problems ran deeper than that. That team had an old bench, and guys who they’d been able to rely on in the past (Robert Horry, Bruce Bowen, Barry) didn’t come through when called upon.
Since then, San Antonio has addressed that issue. Matt Bonner (8.4 ppg, 45% 3PA) started off the season looking like a slightly better version of Brian Scalabrine, but he’s found his niche in Gregg Popovich‘s system and has been effective. Mike Finley (9.8 ppg, 42% 3PA) looked like he needed to retire after last year’s playoffs, but he’s been better this year; less than a month ago he dropped 25 points in a game against the Lakers. Drew Gooden has provided some much-needed frontcourt help; in his last two games he’s averaged 16 points per. And of course there’s Roger Mason (11.6 ppg, 41% 3PA). The biggest benefactor of Manu’s absence can be an effective third option on offense — he has 10 games of 20-plus points this season — and is a proven go-to guy in crunch-time.
Without Manu, the Spurs go into these playoffs a lot like Michigan State went into Monday’s national championship game. They have a chance to win it all, but their margin for error is small. They can’t give away leads, can’t miss a lot of free throws and blow wide-open shots, can’t turn the ball over, and can’t have too many defensive breakdowns.
Here’s the thing, though: In the Tim Duncan era, no NBA team has been better at navigating tiny margins for error. If you’re counting on a team to make mistakes, blow golden opportunities and underachieve, San Antonio is absolutely NOT that team. How often have the Spurs lost to a lower-seeded team in the playoffs? (Duncan has never lost in the first round.) How often have they quietly exited the postseason?
All you can say about Duncan is that HE’S STILL TIM DUNCAN. Tony Parker (21.8 ppg, 6.9 apg) is playing the best basketball of his career. And Pop isn’t going to get out-coached by anyone. What did people say when the Lakers were winning championships: As long as they had Kobe, Shaq and Phil, you could pretty much put anyone around them and they’d be in the championship mix, if not win the whole thing. The Spurs have their dominant big man, they have their explosive lead guard, and they have their outstanding coach. They also have a system that’s proven to work even with interchangeable parts, and they play defense.
Also working to the Spurs’ advantage is at least now they know Manu won’t be able to help them. In last year’s L.A. series, the knowledge that Manu was on the court created a level of expectation, and when that didn’t work out, it threw the Spurs off. They couldn’t counter. This time Pop has weeks to game plan around Manu’s absence.
Obviously, Manu would make things a lot easier, but this team can win a championship without him. To write them off at this point is just short-sighted and silly.