Ginobili injury could cripple Spurs’ title chance

Here we go again.

For the San Antonio Spurs, losing a significant piece for a significant time to the title-contending puzzle is commonplace. These Spurs are used to playing without Timmy or Tony or Manu and winning in their absence.

In the regular season, mind you.

San Antonio has already played a good stretch of this season without Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Tim Duncan, knock on hardwood, has remained upright as the games remaining before the playoffs slip into single digits.

Now comes the word that Ginobili may miss up to a month with a strained right hamstring. Do the math, we’re in April. The regular season ends April 17. Manu for the start of postseason isn’t looking too realistic, if the timetable of 3-4 weeks is to be trusted.

This is one tough break. Obviously not Kevin Ware tough, but maybe just as crippling to the Spurs’ chances of squeezing one more title out of their Three Amigos.

San Antonio skipper Gregg Popovich maneuvers through all 82 games of the regular season with his team’s health a top priority. Being healthy and rested for the postseason is the goal, more so than claiming the No. 1 seed overall or in the Western Conference.

The Spurs aren’t worried about having the homecourt edge for every series. They’re not intimidated by playing in enemy buildings against hostile crowds. This is a battle-tested bunch, at its core, that understands what it takes to be the last team standing, even if it’s been six years since they were.

What the Spurs didn’t want was to be short-handed. Sure, they’re arguably the deepest squad in the league, and that depth helps mask the times they’re without Timmy or Tony or Manu. You can get by with Cory Joseph and Patty Mills filling in for Parker or Stephen Jackson picking up the slack when Ginobili is down. The Spurs recently went 6-2 without their starting French playmaker.

But that’s during the regular season. Popovich can piece together gameplans and hide injuries on a Tuesday night in Minnesota. There’s no band-aid big enough to hide those wounds during the playoffs. There is no substitute on the Spurs’ roster that can do what Nos. 21, 20 and 9 can do when the stakes are at their highest.

The loss of Ginobili was surely felt in Sunday’s showdown loss to Miami. Yes, the Heat were without LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, but they’re still elite and they exploited the absence of Ginobili to slow down the Spurs offensively.

“Without Manu, Tony is a guy who has to generate things for us and they pretty much took him out with all of their double teams and hard hedge,” Popovich said. “We didn’t generate offense anywhere else except through Timmy.”

Teams can scheme to take out Parker, as the Heat did, knowing that Manu isn’t there to create havoc on the perimeter. The entire San Antonio dynamic changes when that happens. The Spurs’ system relies on players knowing their roles and playing off Timmy and Tony and Manu.

They need those guys intact. San Antonio’s 2011 playoff stay ended in the first round, despite being the top seed in the West. Ginobili, as you remember, tried to fight his way through that Memphis series with a bum elbow. He wasn’t right, and neither were the Spurs, who lost in six to the eighth-seeded Grizzlies.

That’s not to say these Spurs can’t get by this season’s No. 8 squad should they hold onto No. 1. (San Antonio currently has a 1 1/2-game lead on Oklahoma City.) Yet, getting past the Lakers or Jazz or Mavericks gets that much more difficult without Manu in the mix.

And should the Spurs fall before the second round, it won’t be difficult to pinpoint the reason. Should they move on and get Manu back healthy and in rhythm, San Antonio has enough to get out of the West.

No Manu, no shot.