San Antonio Spurs 91, Los Angeles Lakers 79: Manu sparks Spurs as defense suffocates Lakers
SAN ANTONIO — The Spurs hadn’t felt comfortable with the way they’d been playing over the last month of the season, especially on the defensive end. But something clicked on Sunday afternoon, and it seemed Manu Ginobili was the switch that needed to be flipped.
San Antonio’s oft-injured sixth man looked like he’d forgotten about the hamstring tear that held him out for three weeks, and in the process reminded all of us what ‘playoff Manu’ looks like. Ginobili scored eight of his 18 points in the final 1:25 of the third quarter, including two 3-pointers in the final minute, to break open what had been an offensive struggle to that point and push the Spurs to a 91-79 Game 1 victory. The role of ‘X-factor’ was never transferred from Manu to Kawhi Leonard. The fact is, it’s always been Leonard, because Ginobili has always been a constant once the postseason begins.
It wasn’t a box score you cut out and send to mom in the mail — the Spurs as a whole shot 37.6 percent from the floor — but the feeling in the arena was as familiar as home. Ginobili’s facilitating and shotmaking were sorely missed in recent weeks, if only to jump-start a lagging offense like the one that scored eight points in the six and a half minutes prior to his third-quarter arrival.
The players spoke last week of how the postseason can spark a listless locker room, apparently no one individual more so than Manu.
“It’s impossible not to be energized. We’re playing at home against the Lakers. It’s a great moment to be energetic,” he said. “Sometimes if you’re too energetic, shots don’t fall and things don’t go your way. But we played a good game, and hopefully we’ll play even better.”
And it wasn’t just Ginobili. If not for the Spurs’ defense, his burst prior to the fourth quarter would’ve likely mattered little. San Antonio held Los Angeles to 41 percent shooting, including 20 percent from beyond the arc, and forced 18 Laker turnovers. After watching this team slip back to mediocrity on that side of the ball in recent weeks, the effort was a sight for Gregg Popovich’s sore eyes.
“I thought tonight was the best defense we’ve played in three or four weeks. It came at a good time,” Pop said at the podium after the game. “And we rebounded. There’s no stop until you get the board and we did a pretty decent job of that.
“They didn’t get an inordinate amount of rebounds. That was the best part of the game.”
Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard combined for 31 rebounds, but only one on the offensive glass. As a whole, Los Angeles outrebounded San Antonio, but just by one, 44-43. It was the kind of game the Spurs needed to have against this team. They swarmed the paint, bodied up on Gasol and Howard constantly and made the perimeter guys try and beat them. Tonight it worked.
“It was a very physical game. It was a good start to our playoff run,” Duncan said. “We shook off a lot of cobwebs we’ve had over the past ten games or so.
“It was great to have everybody back out there together.”
In Duncan’s mind, it’s likely one player in particular stands out. Yes, Tony Parker played the most minutes of any Spur (18 points, eight assists on 8-for-21 shooting in 37 minutes), but Ginobili’s run brought back memories of past playoff pushes. So many times before we’ve seen him enter a close game and leave it a blowout. Healthy, he’s a one-man scoring run when the pace of the playoffs bogs down NBA offenses. And we’ve heard it his entire career: sometimes you have to live with Manu being Manu, even when that means watching him pull up for a 3-pointer in the middle of a close game when it isn’t necessarily the highest-percentage look you might find.
“You always want to create some separation (from your opponent). Sometimes it just doesn’t happen and actually the other team is the one that makes a run,” Ginobili said. “I just took a couple of risks and the ball went in and it really helped us. But sometimes it could have gone their way.”
But it didn’t, and the Spurs find themselves up 1-0 in the best-of-seven series against a hated rival. The playoffs are all about making the right changes, however, especially after that pace-setting Game 1.
“Now it’s time to adjust. It’s going to be like a chess game. It always is,” Manu said. “We know we have better games ahead offensively, but we probably have worse games ahead defensively, too.
“They are thinking the same,” he continued. “They still can achieve what they came to San Antonio looking for. It’s just one game.”
It was the best the Spurs have played in a while, but this locker room is as cautious as always. They’ve been through this a million times before, and they realize things don’t just click. Not that easily, at least.
“It’s too early to say we’ve flipped the switch. If we start believing that it’s about flipping switches, we’re going to be gone very quick,” Ginobili said. “We’ve just got to be humble, work hard and know full well that they are a good team and it’s going to be tough.”
Maybe we don’t know if the switch has been flipped for good, but the light is flickering again. At least for one night.