Friday May 23rd, 2008

LOS ANGELES -- It has been said that as Tim Duncan goes, so go the Spurs.

There is some truth to that.

But if you want the whole truth, look no further than Manu Ginobili. Because if the Spurs hope to be successful in the rest of the 2008 playoffs, which resume for them Friday with Game 2 of the Western Conference finals against the Lakers, they are only going to go as far as he takes them.

How can I say a sixth man (albeit a great one) for most of the season is more valuable than a 10-time All-Star with three Finals MVPs on his résumé? Well, for starters I am in no way suggesting that Duncan is less valuable than Ginobili. Especially not in this series, where the Lakers' Pau Gasol must be feeling like he is back wearing a Memphis jersey based on the number of times Duncan used him as a turnstile in Game 1 on Wednesday. Duncan is without peer in locating teammates from the post and delivering passes that lead to open jump shots. Simply put, Duncan is the best team player in sports.

It's just that in today's NBA, big men are rarely go-to players. Kevin Garnett finished third in the MVP voting this season, but the Celtics usually give the ball to Paul Pierce in crunch time. The Pistons prefer having Chauncey Billups or Richard Hamilton take the key shots. And the Lakers, well, let's just say Gasol wasn't looking for the ball in the post late in the fourth quarter. That's Kobe time.

While Duncan is the most valuable Spur in the first three quarters, coach Gregg Popovich turns to Ginobili down the stretch. During the regular season, Ginobili averaged a team-high 5.1 points in the fourth quarter. His aggressive style usually results in free throws, which help San Antonio dictate the tempo and slow any extended runs by opponents in the fourth quarter.

Which is why it was especially tough for Popovich to see Ginobili's ineffectiveness in the fourth quarter Wednesday, when the Spurs scored 13 points on 3-for-21 shooting (14.3 percent) as the Lakers rallied to win the series opener 89-85. No one looked more fatigued from the Spurs' hard-fought, seven-game series with the Hornets -- not to mention having to spend Monday night sleeping on a plane after their flight from New Orleans was grounded -- than Ginobili, who also is dealing with a sore left ankle and a finger injury.

Ginobili took two shots in the fourth quarter and missed them both, including a potential go-ahead three-pointer with nine seconds remaining. Overall, he finished with 10 points (on 3-for-13 shooting) and committed four turnovers. His jumpers were short. His explosive first step wasn't there. He made Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic look like Ron Artest.

"I have a couple issues," Ginobili said, "but nothing that bad that can justify the way I played. I'm upset, but it's over, and now you've got to try to play better next game."

With only one day off between each game in the series, Ginobili won't have much time to get rejuvenated. The ankle injury, which dates back to Game 1 of the Spurs' first-round series against the Suns, is particularly troublesome. But if the Spurs want to salvage a split on the road after blowing a 20-point third-quarter deficit in Game 1, they need to find a way to reignite their spark plug.

"It is a kick in the gut for sure," Ginobili said of the Game 1 loss. "But we know we had a great game for 30 minutes. It is never enough against a great team like them. ... We just were not smart enough down the stretch to calm things down, be more patient and attack the seams better. We were always the same speed, no change of direction, no good execution. Those things have to get better."

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