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How much difference does Manu make?

DALLAS – The biggest difference between these San Antonio Spurs and the team the Mavs dismissed in five games last season isn’t the arrival of overrated, overpaid Richard Jefferson. It’s the return of Manu Ginobili.

Ginobili was sidelined during the playoffs last season, leaving Tony Parker and Tim Duncan as San Antonio’s only dependable scoring threats. He’s in All-Star form now, averaging 22.9 points while starting the last 20 games.

“He’s one of the best basketball players in this league,” Jason Kidd said. “I think him being healthy is a big factor. He’s healthy and one of the hottest players in the league right now.”

Another major difference from these Spurs and last season: George Hill, a second-year guard, has emerged as a rising star. He’s been so good down the stretch, particularly when Tony Parker was out with a broken hand, that Gregg Popovich isn’t quite sure who will start in the backcourt during the playoffs.

But back to Ginobili …

The Mavs, of course, have also made major changes since last season. One of those has been acquiring Shawn Marion, who has held the league’s top scorers well below their normal scoring averages and shooting percentages. That group includes Ginobili, who has averaged 9.0 points on .383 shooting in three meetings with the Mavs this season.