SAN ANTONIO -- He went hunting for a weakside block when the ball went inside to Zach Randolph on the game’s first possession. He quickly got reacquainted with the AT&T Center floor by flinging himself after countless loose balls. He even let Tim Duncan lift him up off that floor with a strong tug on his heavily padded right arm.
The only visible caution from Manu Ginobili on Wednesday night? You finally saw some after he drew a crucial charge in crunch time with one of his signature sales jobs on Tony Allen.
Marching back to the San Antonio bench after getting back to his feet, with the Spurs up by six points late, Ginobili perched his left hand up high for all the congratulatory fives from his teammates and pointed his right arm out wide. Away from traffic.
There's pretty much nothing Ginobili avoided in this must-win Game 2 over the Memphis Grizzlies. He jumped right into the traffic from the opening tip and thrived in a game-turned-scrum that was not coincidentally frantic from start to finish, ultimately overcoming his wayward shooting to spark the desperate Spurs to a 93-87 triumph in his first real basketball in about 10 days.
“Manu elevated their team and the crowd was much more electric,” Grizzlies swingman Shane Battier said after the West’s No. 8 seeds were denied a 2-0 fantasy lead over their 61-win hosts, playing from behind for much of the second half in Ginobili’s return from a badly sprained right elbow.
“But Manu is Manu. He could be in a body cast and he’s still gonna make plays.”
The Spurs are grateful that it’s only a bulky black-and-blue brace encasing much of Ginobili’s right arm. Thankful because (A) Ginobili admittedly hates wearing the thing and (B) San Antonio barely squeezed out a W it had to have even with its leading source of spirit restored … and despite the fact that the Spurs had more success defensively against Randolph and Marc Gasol than Gregg Popovich could have dreamed coming in.
In its historic Game 1 victory -- which you surely haven’t forgotten was the first playoff victory in the team’s 16-season history in Canada and Graceland -- Memphis became just the seventh foe in 176 playoff games in the Popovich era to shoot better than 50 percent from the field and 50 percent from the 3-point line. In Game 2, San Antonio tried to force the ball out of Randolph’s hands with swarms led by a much-improved Antonio McDyess and perhaps benefited from the rhythm-disrupting effect of Randolph’s early foul trouble, too. The Grizzlies’ big men wound up laboring to a combined 23 points on 7-for-23 shooting, after Randolph and Gasol rumbled to a highly efficient 49 points in the series opener.
Throw in the Grizzlies’ collective 39.8 percent shooting as a team -- lowlighted by some rushed hoists by O.J. Mayo and an all-around lack of patience undoubtedly brought on by the struggles to get Randolph and Gasol in their favorite spots -- and you’d have expected the Spurs to cruise. But they didn’t. Even after Ginobili drew that seemingly game-sealing charge on Allen with 2:26 to play, Memphis still managed to draw within 89-87 with 14.4 ticks to go on Sam Young’s 3-point heave.
You inevitably came away from Ginobili’s big evening -- 17 points, seven rebounds, four assists and four steals standing out more than his six missed free throws, five turnovers and 5-for-13 shooting from the floor -- marveling at the Grizzlies’ defiance as much as Ginobili’s resilience. The Grizz, with so little working, had plenty of chances to go away. But they wouldn’t.
There was the sequence in the third quarter when Ginobili stepped up at midcourt to rake the ball right away from the advancing Mike Conley and then sail in for an uncontested dunk after McDyess flattened Battier, Memphis’ only defender between Ginobili and the bucket, with a crunching open-floor screen. You thought then, with the Spurs’ lead extended to 56-48 and the noise rising, that the playoff neophytes might finally get rattled. Yet Memphis responded with the next seven points and refused to let the Spurs see any scoreboard daylight until the final two minutes, when San Antonio finally established an 89-81 cushion after the Allen charge. And then San Antonio almost let all of that lead slip.
Questions persist about whether Memphis has the requisite discipline to beat a team that apparently can still carry out a defensive game plan with the precision of yesteryear's Spurs teams. We’ll likewise have to see how the inexperienced Grizzlies cope with Games 3 and 4 at home with their fans suddenly expecting something … and with Grizz coach Lionel Hollins making the unexpected postgame admission that those two games are essentially must-wins if his guys are serious about getting to Round 2.
Hollins, though, also uncorked a bold one-liner to illustrate just how much the Grizzlies believe they belong right where they are, all tied up with the West’s winningest team. While the Spurs were peppered with questions postgame about whether they’re already prepared to anoint Memphis as the toughest No. 8 seed they’ve ever seen, Hollins was naturally asked about Ginobili’s impact on proceedings.
“He’s their Tony Allen,” Hollins shot back, leaving the impression that he’s convinced he has every right to put them in the same sentence.
On this night? Not really. Allen actually shot the ball as well as anyone on the Memphis side, with 15 points on 7-for-13 accuracy, but he was baited into frustration more than once by this vintage, game-changing Ginobili ... once Manu figured out how to cope with having “such a bulky thing” protecting his elbow.
“I took some risks,” Ginobili said. “I went for steals and rebounds. I didn’t play like I was worried [about] getting hit or anything happening.”
Said an admiring Randolph: “He’s left-handed like me. We’re both crafty. Lefties are all crafty. We special.”
San Antonio’s problem? What will be remembered as a Manu special -- what will be recorded as Ginobili’s night -- doesn’t change the fact that this looks like anybody’s series.
Anything but a 1-versus-8 formality.
No argument from the Spurs’ Tony Parker, who said: “They love to play physical. They’re like the old Utah. They’re going to foul and grab and they’re great at it.”