Friday, May 23, 2008

Banged up and battered, the Spurs fight on

The Spurs' team bus navigated the steep ramp inside KeyArena and came to a stop outside the visiting team's locker room. It was Jan. 29, two hours before tip-off against the Seattle Sonics, and San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich appeared harried.

Never to be confused with a fashion model, Popovich, wearing gray sweatpants with a T-shirt and a black leather jacket, was on the move. In one door, out another, pace quickening. He stopped to talk to an assistant coach, then the training staff.

Inside the locker room, inside a small training room where players receive pre-game treatments (e.g., taped ankles, ice baths, electro-stimulizations, etc.), Tony Parker was being examined. Popovich entered the room and closed the door shut behind him. Words were not audible, but voices (mostly Popovich's) could be heard coming from the room. A minute or so later, the door opened. Popovich, still moving with a purpose, had made his decision.

Parker, coming off a 1-for-7, four-turnover game the night before in Utah, would not play against the Sonics. Parker's injured left foot was bothering him and playing on it wasn't helping. Popovich, against Parker's wishes, decided to shut down his point guard.

Popovich later explained this to the media: The only way to survive the playoffs is by being at full-strength physically. Pop didn't want Parker's injury to linger any longer, to jeopardize his postseason. Parker missed a total of nine games. He returned to play the final two months of the regular season. And he's been the Spurs' best performer thus far in the postseason.

Playoff teams, particularly in the West, are simply too evenly matched to expect success when key guys are hobbling. While Parker is healthy, Manu Ginobili is not. His ankle is Jello, thanks to an injury suffered in Game 1 of the first round against the Suns. His versatile game, which typically includes a big dose of explosive drives to the basket, has been reduced to 3-pointers and free throws.

His effectiveness diminished, Ginobili still gutted out 25 and 26 points respectively as the Spurs fought off elimination to win Games 6 and 7 against the Hornets. But the quick turn to face the fresh and impressive Lakers was too much as Ginobili tallied just 17 points on 5-for-21 shooting combined in the first two games, both wins by Los Angeles.

Against the Lakers, a healthy Ginobili may not have mattered. Since acquiring Pau Gasol via trade, the Lakers are 31-6, including 10-2 in the postseason (7-0 in LA, where they have enjoyed homecourt advantage throughout the West bracket).

With a banged up Ginobili, however, the Spurs' chances were slim to begin with. Now down 2-0, and again forced to win four of the final five, those chances are rapidly slipping away to nothing. But even if they come up short of a title this year, San Antonio's dispatching of the Suns and Hornets deserves to be ranked alongside some of its greatest accomplishments.

Sunday's Game 3 will be the Spurs' 15th playoff game in 2008 and 105th since 2003. Essentially, they've crammed another season-and-a-half's worth of games (all high intensity against quality opposition, too) into the span of six years. Not only does that put additional stress on bodies that just completed a grinding regular season, playing into June also means shorter offseasons, and thus, less recovery time.

I'm not saying that Ginobili's injury is the product of overuse, but rather that in order to beat the best team in the league, one that is performing at its peak, everyone needs to be at full-strength and that includes Tim Duncan, who isn't dominating as much or as frequently as he once did.

Sometimes, players who have been through the ringer, oh, say, 105 extra times in six years, summon the energy to get it done again -- and their bodies don't respond.