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Spurs will pay now -- and perhaps later -- for Ginobili's injury woes

And so they will be dismissed again. For what may be the 10th time in 10 years, the Spurs will be ruled out as a title contender by national acclamation, even though three of those seasons ended with San Antonio championships, obviously the result of luck or bribery or the rest of the league not trying too hard.

Except that the spring of 2009 is different. Manu Ginobili is done for the season after the stiffness in his right ankle during Sunday's game against the Cavaliers was found Monday to be a stress fracture that will not require surgery but will demand consideration of his future dependability. In a related development, the dismissers have called their meeting to order.

That's the news of the week, except that it's not.

News of the months is more like it. Losing Ginobili is an early tipping point for the entire playoffs, removing the Spurs from legit-contender status, and this time, in one of the few times, not just because it's tradition to give up on them.

This goes so much deeper than what the injury means in April and May, though, with the potential of an ailing Ginobili affecting future seasons in a ripple effect. This makes serious injuries to both ankles since last summer for someone at his best when he plays with his hair on fire.

The Spurs say Ginobili should be ready next season, so no gloomy predictions that the stress fracture is career threatening. San Antonio's string of odd-year championships -- 2003, '05, '07 -- just vaporized is all. The real outcome, the long-term outcome, is months from being known, and welcome to the first storyline of next season.

An immobile, aging Ginobili having to grind out possessions is not nearly the game-changer as the guy voted Sixth Man Award winner and third-team All-NBA last season. He scores, he defends, he ignites. This is not a catch-and-shoot role player who loiters on the perimeter.

Ginobili will be 32 heading into camp this fall, with a body that has absorbed five seasons in Argentina and Italy and seven with the Spurs, plus the equivalent of another 1¼ seasons in Spurs playoff time. And now, the surgery on the left ankle that cost him training camp, the exhibition schedule and the first 12 games of the regular season followed by the stress fracture in the right ankle that will cost him the playoffs.

"I certainly think that they can win a playoff series," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said of the Spurs' chances when the postseason begins next week. "With who they've got, they've got enough experience. They played without Gino over the course of probably 30 games this season. ... They know how to play without him."

OK. A series.

But four?

"It's hard to project that," Jackson said. "Someone's going to have to step up and fill that spot. Tony [Parker] has had a great year. He's playing really great. But Gino had that little extra that he could provide at the end of the game where you could get six points in the last couple minutes or so and make a steal. They're going to miss that part of it."

Said Timberwolves coach Kevin McHale: "It hurts them like crazy. ... Ginobili shot the indefensible shots."

Ginobili has been durable, playing at least 90 percent of the games in three of the previous four seasons, and yet it is his health that has become a pressing issue. It actually was to different degrees before -- smart aleck Brent Barry once hung the perfect nickname for an Argentine teammate who played delightfully breakneck: El Contusion -- except that two threats to his mobility so close on the calendar spins 2008-09 into the new tracking history.

The ace sixth man had just been moved into the starting lineup, with coach Gregg Popovich saying he wanted Ginobili playing with Tim Duncan and Parker -- hardly a dramatic late-season change to the rotation. Instead, Roger Mason Jr. has reclaimed the job as the starting shooting guard.

Mason, a success as a free-agent signee, promptly went a combined 11-of-29 the next two games, and had managed 57 points over his past seven outings. The Spurs have lost four of six to drop to 18-16 without Ginobili and are in danger of beginning the playoffs without home-court advantage.

They get the Jazz and Hornets at home and the Kings and Warriors on the road to close the schedule. Then the playoffs, the place where franchises with high standards like San Antonio find the only measure of a season. But with Ginobili out and Duncan hobbled for weeks by a knee injury, discounting them will just be a lot easier this time around.

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