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Spurs need Manu to go mano a mano against rugged Grizzlies

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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SAN ANTONIO -- Every aspect of Manu Ginobili's elbow injury was covered in Gregg Popovich's pregame media availability Wednesday night. Would Ginobili wear a brace in Game 2 against the Grizzlies? Would it be the same brace he wore in practice? A different one? How healthy was he? Could a percentage be placed on it?

Popovich often has little tolerance for the simplistic question, but in this case, he was verbally kinder and gentler than he's been known to be.

"Either you play, or you don't," the Spurs coach said.

The left-handed Ginobili did not play in Game 1 because of the right elbow strain and the top-seeded Spurs lost to the eighth-seeded Grizzlies. He played in Game 2 Wednesday and the Spurs won. His importance is obvious.

But what has to be sobering for the Spurs is that even though they were the best team in the Western Conference during the season, they not only have to be at full strength to beat the Grizzlies, but they have to be at the very top of their game.

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When No. 1 meets No. 8, it's not supposed to be this difficult, although Popovich disagreed.

"It didn't just happen," Popovich said. "It's been like that for awhile so it's really nothing new. It doesn't matter who you get in the West as far as playoff position is concerned. It's going to be a tough series for everybody and it's been like that for awhile."

That is only partially true. Although there is no doubt the West has been a deep conference in recent years, only one No. 1 seed -- Dallas in 2007 -- has lost in the first round this century. Since the Mavericks were defeated by the Golden State Warriors, the top seeds in each conference are a combined 6-0 with a record of 24-8. One series has gone seven games, two have gone six, one was five games and there were two sweeps.

Overall in the history of the 16-team playoffs, the No. 8 seed has a 3-51 record against the top-seeded team.

But this is a different Memphis team. The Grizzlies rested their regulars late in the season and were satisfied when they dropped from seventh to eighth place. They preferred to play the Spurs rather than the Lakers in the first round. Memphis had a 2-2 record against San Antonio during the regular season and with the twin bulks of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies are a rugged team in the low post.

They were neutralized Wednesday night, however. After combining for 49 points in Game 1, Randolph and Gasol had only 23 points between them in Game 2. Gasol still came up huge with 17 rebounds, but after shooting 55.2 percent from the field in Game 1, the Grizzlies were held to 39.8 percent.

Antonio McDyess did a nice job on Randolph while Tim Duncan did not allow Gasol to go off like he did in Game 1. Gasol had 24 points in the first game and 12 on Wednesday.

"I thought Timmy was much more physical and did his work a lot earlier and didn't let Marc get to spots so easily," Popovich said. "It was a big change for us. Him scoring 24 points was not something you expect."

Ginobili had been out 10 days since injuring his elbow late in the regular season. He wore a padded brace during the game and it kept his arm bent at a slight angle. He could not completely straighten the arm.

But in terms of effort, the brace had no effect. Ginobili played with his usual abandon and even managed four steals. One midway through the third quarter was spectacular as Ginobili stripped Memphis guard Mike Conley of the ball at midcourt and ambled in for an easy layup. Ginobili had seven rebounds and a blocked shot to go along with his 17 points.

"I took some risks," Ginobili said. "I went for steals and rebounds. It's not like I played worried that something would happen. So overall, I felt better than expected."

Ginobili said he expects to wear the brace the rest of the first round and then team medical personnel will re-evaluate whether he will need it in the next round.

That, of course, is if the Spurs manage to win the series. In winning Game 1, the Grizzlies secured home-court advantage and the series now moves to Memphis for games on Saturday and Monday. Players on both teams said the physical play increased in Game 2 and even though Duncan fouled out and Randolph and Gasol had five fouls each, the referees still allowed both teams to play. It figures to get rougher.

"Whenever you see somebody consecutive games, that's when it gets annoying," Spurs forward Richard Jefferson said. "We have a ton of respect for them. We know it's a battle. They wanted to play us and we knew why. They match up well and they had a lot of confidence against us because of the regular season. It's one of those things that we know it's going to be a battle throughout."

The Spurs don't mind the battle -- as long as they are full strength.

"Everybody knows what kind of competitor Manu is," Popovich said. "Just to have him on the floor is a plus for the psyche of the whole team without a doubt. And on top of that, he played pretty well."

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