San Antonio Spurs 102, Los Angeles Lakers 91: The return of the Big 3
AT&T CENTER — Gregg Popovich wondered aloud during his pre-game press conference whether the team he saw in Game 1 was the real thing. After watching Game 2, the answer might very well be “no,” because Wednesday night’s version looked even better.
Tony Parker went off for 24 of his 28 points in the second half, and Manu Ginobili pulled out all the stops once again as the Spurs pulled away with a convincing 102-91 victory over the battered Lakers. San Antonio now heads to Los Angeles with a two-games-to-none lead and what seems to be a strangle-hold on this first-round series.
Tim Duncan turns 37 years old Thursday, and as a present it looks like the other two components of the Big 3 are quickly rounding back into form at the perfect time.
Parker and Ginobili were once again brilliant. For Tony, it’s about time. But for Manu, it’s unbelievable he’s even doing this at all. Well, maybe only to us.
The Spurs’ sixth man has played 19 minutes in each of the first two games of this series, averaging 15.5 points per. Ginobili went for 13 points, seven assists and five rebounds to go along with a steal and a block on Wednesday night, and the oft-injured guard seems remarkably free of rust and ailment after missing three weeks with a hamstring strain.
“It’s what he does. Once he got his rhythm back, once he got his game back, it’s what we’ve asked him to do for years now,” Duncan said. “In the limited role he’s playing in right now, he’s been unbelievable.
“Having him fresh, having out there and having him feel good is a huge part of our team.”
We became accustomed to watching this team without Ginobili for long stretches of the season, and it understandably bred familiarity with something Spurs fans weren’t previously accustomed to watching. This team struggled mightily without its most creative facilitator and “big moment” scorer, and the offensive lulls the second unit was experiencing became cause for long-term concern. Or so many thought.
Pulling the trigger on bringing Manu back in the fold was an admittedly frightening moment for Pop, given the ramifications of what could result from a return that came too early. But the decision was made, the rest he got was needed, and now we’re seeing the fruits of the labor this team trudged through over the last month of the regular season.
Now, Manu wants more minutes. Shocking. Yet here he is, whipping behind-the-back passes to Parker in the corner for three — a sequence reminiscent of one from the recent past — and looking like his old self. Maybe he already deserves them.
“(Pop is) always very cautious,” Ginobili said at the podium following the game. “I probably could have played more today, but we had a great lead in the fourth, up 17 (points).”
And once again it was an end-of-quarter burst from the Argentine that gave the Spurs separation. Ginobili hit two 3s in the final 1:08 of the second quarter, helping punctuate a 10-2 San Antonio run over the final two minutes of the first half. It’s the second consecutive game Manu has picked his “moment” in the throes of a close game. And it’s the second straight time it’s worked.
But outside of the unexpected immediate contributions of Ginobili are the even more unpredictable performances of Matt Bonner. The Red Mamba, infamous for past playoff flameouts, is playing at an invaluable level right now, especially with Boris Diaw on the shelf for the foreseeable future. Bonner’s skill-set has contributed to much of the Spurs’ offensive success in recent years, but when his shots didn’t fall come playoff time, his minutes dropped as well. But here he is, a perfect counter to the huge Laker frontline, knocking down 3-pointers and playing great defense on some of the NBA’s most talented big men.
“Matty’s a tough-minded individual. He’s a heck of a competitor and a great team guy,” Pop said. “He’ll do whatever we ask him to do.
“I think his family worries about him and the things we ask him to do out there.”
Bonner’s presence on the floor has been a catch-22 for the Spurs over the years. His long-range shooting ability holds massive value on the offensive end, but his previously inherent defensive issues have been a problem when San Antonio has asked him to match up with the likes of a Gasol or Howard. But this Bonner is different. This version is pushing people around, being physical and not backing down from the imposing presence the Lakers offer inside. If this continues, this postseason might be different than the ones in recent memory.
“He was a key player for us today. He was very active defensively,” Ginobili said, mentioning things about Bonner none of us thought we’d hear once the regular season came to an end. “Of course, he’s giving Dwight a big advantage in size, strength and quickness, and I could keep going. But he did a great job.”
And whether it was intentional or not, Bonner is used to being trolled, used to being the butt of the joke. But it’s because his teammates have always loved him. There’s nothing new about that. But the way all the Spurs’ pieces seem to be coming together at the right time is a fresh development. Just one week ago this team was as concerned as it’s ever been upon entering the postseason during the Popovich era, but now it finds itself heading out to Los Angeles with the opportunity to end the series on a Hollywood stage.
And it’s not a coincidence that the Spurs once again look like the Spurs as Parker and Ginobili finally look like themselves. Manu’s trying not to waste any time.
“I’m ready to play my minutes,” Ginobili said. “I think I’m ready.”