HANG TIME, Texas — Losing at home to the Heat understudies was a sting to the Spurs’ ego. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s no worse than coughing up that hairball in Minnesota three weeks ago.
It’s losing Manu Ginobili for three to four weeks to a strained hamstring that could hurt deeply, perhaps cost the Spurs the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and even leave them vulnerable in the opening round of the playoffs.
“It’s a huge blow for us because he’s the guy that allows our second team to do what they’ve been doing all year long,” said coach Gregg Popovich. “It’s a huge loss for that group and in game situations it’s a tough one because he’s one of two guys — he and Tony (Parker) — that are the creators who make everything happen for everybody else on the court. It’s an unfortunate loss at this point of the season.”
Even after Ginobili hobbled off the court in the first quarter Friday night against the Clippers, things were looking so bright for the Spurs that you thought they might have needed sunglasses. They had a three-game advantage on the Thunder for the best record in the West and hoped to pad that lead with a win over Miami.
However, the stunning loss to the Heat, who were playing without starters LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers, combined with the medical diagnosis on Ginobili in fewer than 18 hours, puts the squeeze right back on the Spurs with a difficult stretch of schedule ahead.
After heading home Wednesday against the Magic, they will be at Oklahoma City to close another back-to-back on a night when you know the Thunder will ready to pounce. Then, they’ll play at home Saturday against Atlanta and at Denver on April 10.
That means the next three road games are against the No. 2, 4 and 5 seeds in the West playoffs that have a combined 94-16 record on their home courts. By the end of that stretch, playing without the fuse that lights their second unit and makes it go, the Spurs could have given up the conference lead to the Thunder.
Even if they hang onto the No. 1 position, the early timetable that’s been set for Ginobili’s return extends into the start of the playoffs. If the Lakers manage to squeeze into the eighth spot, that’s a first-round matchup that would be far more dangerous without their sixth man.
An assortment of injuries has already forced Ginobili to miss 14 games this season and even though, at 35, he’s lost the cutting edge, the Spurs need him to keep constant defensive pressure off Parker. The Heat aggressively attacked Parker with a double-team virtually every time he tried to run a pick-and-roll.
“Without Manu, Tony is a guy who has to generate things for us,” Popovich said, “and they pretty much took him out with all their double-teams and hard hedges.”
It will be a look that the Spurs will see from defenses constantly in a first-round playoff series, regardless of the opponent, as long as Ginobili is out. That’s the real hurt that could linger.