Those 36-year-old legs of Manu Ginobili's have been feeling pretty spry this season. That spring in his step that had been missing for so much of last season was back, helping the Argentine magician become a game-changer again for the San Antonio Spurs.
So when the lane opened up in the third quarter Tuesday night against the Houston Rockets, Ginobili decided to go for it. He rose up, cradled the ball in his left hand and threw down a solid, one-handed dunk. And with that, Ginobili joined the growing list of injured Spurs.
The team said Wednesday that Ginobili strained his left hamstring on the dunk and will miss the next three to four weeks.
Ginobili joins Danny Green (broken finger), Kawhi Leonard (broken left hand) and Tiago Splitter (sprained right shoulder) on the team's injured list, a run of bad luck that has torn apart the team's depth, particularly on the wing.
"You play the guys on the bench," San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. "We can't play the guys on the other team. I know that."
The team is hopeful Splitter, who hasn't played since Jan. 4, will return in time for the team's annual rodeo road trip, a 10-game stint that begins Monday in New Orleans. That would help out Tim Duncan and the big men up front, but the problems on the perimeter remain.
After struggling for much of last season, Ginobili signed a two-year contract to remain in San Antonio. He has rebounded this season to resume his role as the Spurs' playmaker off the bench, averaging 12.1 points, 4.5 assists and shooting 52 per cent on his 2-point shots. During a monthlong stretch from the middle of December to the middle of January, Ginobili scored at least 20 points five times in a 16-game span to help the Spurs once again establish themselves among the NBA's elite teams.
He's been pretty healthy as well, missing two games earlier in January because of a sore left hamstring before injuring it more severely on Tuesday night. Ginobili, who has long been the emotional centre of this close-knit team, was dejected as he limped off the court.
His injury puts even more responsibility on the shoulders of veteran Marco Belinelli, who has been a reliable shooter in a supporting role after coming over in free agency from the Chicago Bulls. Belinelli is averaging 10.9 points and shooting 46.7 per cent from 3-point range for the Spurs. With the injuries to Leonard and Green, Belinelli had become a starter on the wing and seen his playing time steadily increase.
Belinelli played 38 minutes in the loss to Houston, and the Spurs recently signed NBDL standout Othyus Jeffers to a 10-day contract to give them another warm body on the perimeter.
Thanks in large part to Ginobili's return to form, the Spurs entered Wednesday's game against the Bulls at 33-12, good for second place in the hyper-competitive Western Conference. But they've lost three of their last four games, are 1-11 against the top seven teams in the league and now face the daunting challenge of that long road trip without Ginobili, and with Portland (33-13) and the Clippers (32-15) right on their heels.
Chicago is facing its own injuries woes.
All-Star point guard Derrick Rose was lost for the season with a knee injury for the second consecutive year and starting centre Joakim Noah (illness) and guard Kirk Hinrich (right hamstring) are game-time decisions for tonight's game against San Antonio.
So, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said he has little empathy for the Spurs, not because Chicago is also battling injuries, but because of how deep San Antonio is.
"It's the nature of the league. It's the grind of an 82-game season. You're going to take injuries on. It's how you respond and the Spurs have always done a good job with that. It's the way the Spurs are built."