SAN ANTONIO -- Thirty-one days of inactivity failed miserably at injecting even the slightest hint of rust into Manu Ginobili's 38-year-old bones.
Playing for the first time since Feb. 3 after recovering from testicular surgery, Ginobili exhibited none of the signs of a man out of practice by posting 22 points in leading the San Antonio Spurs to a 104-94 win over the Sacramento Kings on Saturday. The victory helped the Spurs become only the third team in NBA history to start off a season 30-0 at home (the other two teams were the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls and 1995-96 Orlando Magic).
Ginobili served as the catalyst, with 13 of his 22 points coming in the third quarter alone.
"If I play once a month, it helps," Ginobili joked. "I was very excited to be there again and competing with my teammates. What happened on the court, it was very unexpected."
Somewhat rare, too, considering Ginobili became the first player since Zach Randolph in 2012 to miss a month between games and return to score 20 points or more off the bench, according to Elias Sports Bureau research. Ginobili accomplished his latest feat on a night in which the Spurs took the court without Tim Duncan (rest), Danny Green (rest) and LaMarcus Aldridge (migraine) in the fold.
Ginobili sat out 12 games after his surgery but participated in workouts with the team Sunday, Monday and Friday, after sitting out Thursday's victory over the New Orleans Pelicans.
Ginobili originally suffered the testicular injury with 2:26 left to play in a Feb. 3 win over the Pelicans in a vicious collision in which Ryan Anderson's knee caught the guard squarely in the groin area.
Even the Kings expected a little rust from Ginobili, who entered the contest with 5:18 left in the opening quarter to a hearty ovation from the home crowd. By the 2:37 mark, Ginobili was nailing his first attempt, a 3-pointer from 26 feet on a Boris Diaw assist. Ginobili connected on 2-of-3 in the first quarter for five points.
"Manu is a difference-maker," Kings guard Darren Collison said. "It was unexpected. His first game back, you would think he would have a little rust. He's a Hall of Fame player for a reason. He's a real good player, and he's been doing it for a real long time. He was slicing and dicing our defense, whether it was the pass or the shot."
Interestingly, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich expected a strong outing from Ginobili, having seen the guard's three workouts upon returning from the club's 18-day rodeo road trip.
"If I hadn't seen that, I would've been surprised," Popovich said.
Ginobili did experience some fatigue as "a 38-year-old man" who hasn't "played in a month" and didn't want to play much longer than the 15:26 he logged on the court against the Kings. Kawhi Leonard, who led the Spurs with 25 points and 13 rebounds to go with six assists, expressed a little surprise at Ginobili's strong outing.
"Yeah, he came out looking fresh. His mental was still in the game," Leonard said. "I'm pretty sure he was watching every game he was out, putting himself on the floor. He did a great job. We missed him."
Ginobili said he expected the Spurs to hold him out until either Monday or Tuesday, but the coaches and athletic training staff convened and decided to put the veteran through the paces to test whether he had sufficiently recovered to contribute. Ginobili obviously tested well enough for Popovich to put him on the court, and the veteran's energy and ability to score in spurts manifested almost immediately.
Ginobili followed up a strong first quarter with four points in the second on 2-of-3 shooting to finish the half with nine points in almost nine minutes on the floor. Then, in the third, Ginobili took over with a 13-point quarter as the Spurs outscored the Kings 29-13.
Throughout the game, Ginobili said he never felt nervous about the potential for re-injury because he's wearing a cup for extra protection in his groin area. Ginobili says he believes the timing of his return was ideal, considering San Antonio hits the road Sunday to face the Indiana Pacers before heading to Minnesota on Tuesday to match up against the Timberwolves.
"What happened today was unexpected, but I'm glad that I helped the team win," Ginobili said. "I didn't expect before coming here that LaMarcus and Danny were not going to play, but we figured it out and got a good win. The important thing for me was to just play a little bit before going on the road trip. We have a tough week coming ahead. So I just wanted to be out there for a little bit to get that rust off."