The domino effect of unnecessary effort and costly wins

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Update: Manu Ginobili OUT versus Dallas Mavericks with tightness in left hamstring. Gregg Popovich says decision is precautionary.

Sometimes an NBA win comes at a greater price than it’s worth in early January. The Spurs escaped major trouble in a 110-108 overtime win in Memphis, but the effort nearly came at a great cost.

Manu Ginobili glided, hesitated, then slithered his way to the basket for the eventual winning score near the end of overtime, as he’s done many times before. It would be his last effort of the night, though. That final stretch of his left hamstring won the game, but it nearly sapped him of the health he has so enjoyed through a renaissance season.

And it all could’ve been avoided. The Spurs played good basketball in their first game without the injured Tiago Splitter, and Tim Duncan was spectacular once again (24 points, 17 rebounds, four assissts and two block in 38 minutes). They were moving the ball quickly from side to side, getting good looks in the paint and finding shooters on the perimeter. Threes weren’t falling, but sometimes they just don’t go in; shooting 61 percent on 2-point shots, as they did, will help balance things.

Then, a brainfart. A 12-point lead with 1:35 remaining in the game dissipated at the hands of Mike Conley, and still the Spurs had a chance in regulation to work the clock in their favor. A veteran team with a three-point lead and possession of the ball with less than 24 seconds remaining, San Antonio runs through these situations in its sleep.

But Marco Belinelli — whose 19 points and apparent dagger 3-pointer just moments earlier were so important all evening — stumbled upon receiving the pass inbounds following a Conley three, and his momentum led him right into a Conley-James Johnson trap along the left sideline just before mid-court. The ball popped into the hands of Johnson, who dribbled into an immediate three-on-zero fast break before electing to pull up for a 45-degree-angle 3-ball rather than get the easy two and prolong the game.

Splash. Of course. Tie game at 96-all.

It was the quintessential confluence of events necessary for such improbable comebacks to take place. And yeah, we’ve seen them before. We’ve seen the perfect storms arise in recent times, both in favor of and against the Spurs. I don’t need to jog your memory, but sometimes great players make amazing things happen. Mike Conley is a hell of a player; do not interpret this the wrong way, but this was on the Spurs.

There’s a big difference between being beaten and giving one away; in this case, the latter nearly fed into the former. Had it not been for a heroic response from a shellshocked group of veteran players, it would have.

“Your spirits are down, you have your head down a little bit,” Duncan said. “You can’t believe it. We did a great job in the huddle of getting everybody refocused and saying, ‘Let’s get this done. Let’s not let it slip out of our hands again.’”

Manu, Tim and Boris Diaw were the only three Spurs to score in the extra period, rescuing the team from what was looking more and more like a gut-wrenching loss on the front side of a quick road-home back-to-back. But the win took its toll.

As Conley’s final heave from 30 feet away glanced off the rim, Ginobili sat alone on the bench, stretching and twisting and prodding his left hamstring moments after pulling one last rabbit out of the hat on a night that felt comfortable and pleasant just 20 minutes earlier.

It should’ve been a solid victory before another matchup against the Dallas Mavericks the next night, this time in San Antonio. Now we don’t know if the Spurs’ irreplaceable sixth man will be in uniform for the tilt that precedes a full three-day break. Hell, we don’t know if any of the Big Three will be in uniform, and that never had to be the case. Had the Spurs maintained their composure and closed accordingly, the extra taxing of their collective body would never have transpired.

We’ve preached all season not to overreact to the trivial losses of November and December, and that the process is more important than the results at this point. But when the task at hand is producing undesirable and completely avoidable ramifications that affect the team’s current state, there starts to be cause for concern. Not necessarily for the long-term future, playoff probabilities or title aspirations, but for the overall ecosystem that exists with every team in the league on a day-to-day basis.

Yes, San Antonio got the win, and that’s important as the rest of the West’s contenders are beginning to slip. The Russell Westbrook-less Thunder have lost to the Nets and the Jazz in the last week, two of the league’s current bottom-feeders. The Trail Blazers have dropped two straight games to the 76ers and the Kings, another pairing of veritable cellar-dwellers, and are beginning to elicit outcries from their season-long nonbelievers.

The biggest difference between the now 27-8 Spurs and the rest of the preseason contenders has been health. They’ve been able to cruise for the most part, limiting minutes and preserving their legs along the way. It’s a nearly unmanageable balance for a team with aging stars whose importance can’t be overstated, but somehow they’ve mastered the art. The Spurs cannot win a title if any of their three — and arguably, four — franchise players go down.

We’ve seen how the NBA season can claim even its least fragile athletes; and when you’re talking about the Spurs in this capacity, Manu’s name pops up first, second, third and fourth. Yet there was his body, battered from all those seasons before, on the line in a situation none of us thought would come to fruition.

Reports from the night behind us are that Manu seems to be OK, and that a major roadblock has been averted. He said he felt some tightness in his hamstring, but it does not appear any significant damage was done. Now it’s time to move on, just as the Spurs did after regulation.

“At that point, it was all a mental contest,” Gregg Popovich said. “The most important thing was letting it go and moving forward mentally.”

And so they will tonight against the Mavs. Though we don’t know just yet who will be in uniform.

Ginobili won yet another game for the Spurs with one more stretch of that delicate left hamstring — a stretch that nearly cost San Antonio dearly.

Quotes courtesy of friend of the program Jeff McDonald.

Up next:

Oh hey, speaking of collapses: remember the last game against the Mavs?

San Antonio is at home tonight against Dallas, and after the calamity that took place Tuesday evening, your guess is as good as mine as to who will play in a 6 p.m. tip. It hasn’t been long since these two met, so if you’d like a little more info on the two sides, this should suffice.

Don’t mean to be lazy here, but not a ton has changed. The Spurs haven’t been great defensively, but the Mavs have been awful. San Antonio has a different look now with Ayres starting, but Dallas will have Brandan Wright in action this evening after missing the previous matchup with an illness. There will be some different wrinkles, but it will all be somewhat familiar for the most part.

The big thing to watch out for, I’d say, is how the Spurs handle that Rick Carlisle zone this time around. It wreaked havoc down the stretch during the Mavs’ huge comeback, and San Antonio looked awful handling it, offensively. Dallas won’t use it regularly, as it’s more of a tactic used to mix things up from its man-to-man approach that just doesn’t slow many teams down.

For the Spurs, keep an eye on the starting lineup from an offensive standpoint. We’re nearly at the halfway mark of the season (unreal), and it’s just now beginning to find its groove. Much of that has to do with the fact that Duncan is getting some serious arch on his shot. He’s been practicing on a machine that forces him out of that line-drive tendency, and it appears to be paying off.

Also, watch the early substitution patterns. Manu has been entering the game for Kawhi Leonard rather than Belinelli midway through the first quarter. This gives that ‘Ginobelli’ combination more court time that’s been missing since Marco was inserted into the starting lineup. It also gives Leonard a chance to hop in with that sweet-passing second unit, which opens things up for him offensively and gives that group a more significant defensive presence on the wing with the Leonard-Danny Green pairing. Speaking of Green, his move into that bench group helped tremendously. Maybe it can do the same thing for Kawhi’s quiet season, relative to expectations.

Remember, tip-off is at 6 p.m. on ESPN this evening. Enjoy the show!