NBA / Nov 20, 2012 / 11:30 am

San Antonio’s Championship Hopes Hinge On One Player’s Back

Manu Ginobili

Last week, I was ready to write Manu Ginobili off. I was going to pen a piece pronouncing him dead, his All-Star years over, the Spurs’ chances at one final championship done. It wasn’t only because he started off slowly this year – and he did, failing to reach double-figure scoring in five of his first six games. It was the repeated breakdowns of his body, the way he started this year with back issues just months after having an up-and-down 2012 Playoff run, which came just a year after an injury slowed him in the 2011 postseason.

San Antonio started as they always do: beating all the teams they should, and unleashing enough mind-numbing consistency to take out some of the more talented ones. But it didn’t feel like the same team. Without Ginobili healthy, they lacked explosiveness. They were more vanilla than usual, having lost the colorful spark that makes them so special.

Ginobili was pushing through the back issues, but how much of it was just old age catching up to him? I decided to wait. He answered pretty emphatically.

Even as San Antonio lost two of their last three games, including a second-straight contest against the suddenly super dangerous Clippers, Ginobili scored 47 points on 48 percent shooting while, most importantly, playing at least 23 minutes in each game without a setback. And in a blowout win over Denver, he looked as good as ever, scoring 20, hitting five three-pointers, and unleashing a number of patented body-contorting drives.

All of that helps, because Ginobili’s numbers (40.3 percent shooting, 10.4 points and 4.0 assists a night) this year are down across the board, and he’s turning the ball over at his highest rate since 2007, per Hoopdata. It’s only been eight games, eight injury-riddled games, but still…

Because of his age (35), his longtime summer basketball obligations (often), his role with the Spurs (decreased playing time), and his injury history (starting to pile up), it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how much Ginobili has left. Just two seasons ago, he was a 2011 NBA All-Star, and in 2011-12, despite only playing in 34 games, he was efficient enough to post a .668 true shooting percentage, the 16th-best mark EVER among players who played at least 20 minutes a night over at least 30 games in a season (and among guards, it was a better mark than any season ever outside of Dave Twardzik in 1976-77, Tim Legler in 1995-96 and Brent Barry in 2003-04).

Gregg Popovich is doing a great job slowly shifting the heavy lifting away from Manu. Kawhi Leonard is scheduled to blow up sometime in, oh, the next few months. Danny Green is the perfect Spur, hitting triples, playing solid defense, and not doing anything stupid. Stephen Jackson is bringing his own unique dose of “crazy.” Even last night against the Clippers, the fourth quarter would’ve normally been reserved for shocking Ginobili shots, and instead, Popovich went with players like Gary Neal, Matt Bonner and Green.

But know this: when the playoffs start, when the defense and pressure tightens, and when nerves start tweaking and hearts start thumping, Ginobili is still their best creator off the dribble. One way or another, he’ll swing a handful of postseason games.

With Jackson now out for at least a month with a non-displaced fracture to his right pinkie finger, and Leonard nursing his own quad injury problems, the Spurs need Ginobili to be Manu again. They need him to stay healthy, hit impossible big shots and slap bats. They need Manu Ginobili to hold off Father Time for a little longer.

How much does Manu have left?

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