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Renewed Manu: Ginobili leads Spurs into playoffs

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SAN ANTONIO (AP)

Forget that the San Antonio Spurs are coming off their worst regular season in 13 years, or that Tim Duncan was a rookie when they last began the playoffs on the road.

Coach Gregg Popovich, in his typically dry we'll-win-or-we-won't way, flatly summed up why that doesn't matter.

``I always feel better going into the playoffs when Manu is healthy,'' he said.

He hasn't been able to say that in two years.

For the first time since San Antonio won their last championship in 2007, Ginobili will begin the playoffs fully healthy Sunday in Game 1 against Dallas, in a rematch of last year's first-round series that the Argentine missed entirely.

No more sore left ankle. No fractured right ankle. No strains or aches.

What the Spurs have instead is Ginobili playing through one the most dazzling stretches of his eight-year career. The 32-year-old is averaging 21.4 points since the All-Star break, eight points better than the first half of the season.

``That's the kind of play we expect from him,'' Duncan said. ``I know he's been working hard to get back to that level. To see him there, I'm happy for him.''

Ginobili's play since February forced the Spurs to sign him to a 3-year, $39 million extension last week, after it long appeared they would let him become a free agent this summer for the first time in his career.

The Spurs had been skittish about Ginobili's health and durability. Now they're counting on him to get them through the playoffs as a No. 7 seed, the lowest in the Duncan era.

``What happened in the last couple months made them think I had to stay,'' Ginobili said.

So important is Ginobili, whose brilliant second half of the season has carried San Antonio to a 17-8 record since March, that Popovich sat his second-leading scorer in Wednesday's regular season finale against the Mavericks.

The Spurs still had a chance at moving up to No. 6 in the West. Duncan also sat out, though over the last two years, San Antonio has seized every chance to rest his creaky 33-year-old legs whenever possible.

Ginobili was fine, but Popovich took no chances.

Not after Ginobili hobbled on a sore ankle through the 2008 playoffs that ended in the West semifinals. Or last year, when Ginobili sat out with a fracture in his other ankle while the Mavs ripped through the Spurs in five games.

``We've had playoffs where Timmy hasn't played, where Manu hasn't played, where Timmy's been half-speed, where Manu's been half-speed for a variety of reasons,'' Popovich said. ``We're entering this playoff pretty healthy except for George (Hill) and I didn't want to screw that up.''

After all, it took the Spurs this long to get things right.

The last time the Spurs didn't start the postseason with home-court advantage was 1998, when 56 wins was only good enough for the fifth seed.

But settling for seventh this year was more disappointing.

With Ginobili's health in doubt after last season, the Spurs aggressively spent on Richard Jefferson to bring in another scorer. But Jefferson, averaging just 12.8 points, didn't provide the offensive punch like San Antonio hoped, and the Spurs stumbled with a revamped roster.

But as Ginobili improved as the season wore on, so did the Spurs. Ginobili has also saved his best for the best: in wins over division leaders Cleveland, Boston, Orlando, Denver and the Los Angeles Lakers, Ginobili averaged 29.6 points.

The Spurs have played 88 playoff games since winning their second championship in 2003. Only once in that span has a player other than Duncan, Ginobili or Tony Parker led the Spurs in scoring in a playoff game.

Far as the Spurs are concerned, it's Ginobili's turn again.

``Coaches think all kinds of crazy things,'' Popovich said. ``But I never thought he was going to be a different player or a worse player. He just needed time to get his rhythm back.''

Tagged: Spurs, Tim Duncan

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