The Spurs' South American contingent spoke today at shoot-around, which in itself was welcome news because it ensured that both Manu Ginobili (lower-back contusion) and Tiago Splitter (right calf rehabilitation), who sat out the loss at Portland will play tonight against the Memphis Grizzlies. They offered their thoughts on a variety of topics, from the difficulty of having to play with different guys constantly in and out of the lineup, the Spurs' dominance of the Grizzlies (wins in 15 of their 17 meetings since the playoff loss in 2011) and their brutal December schedule.
Splitter and Ginobili agreed that the injuries have been challenging, not just because key people are missing but even more so that it's tough to build any continuity when it's never the same two or three guys out. If that was the case then Gregg Popovich could make a sensible rotation out of the remaining 11 or 12 able-bodied players and roles could be formed.
"In the beginning it was just Tiago and Patty (Mills who were out)," Ginobili recalled, "so you sort of can adjust because everybody had their rotation, their minutes and you get used to playing with some guys, but then when there are guys coming in and out, it makes it a little harder, especially if it's Tony (Parker) and Kawhi (Leonard), players who are huge for us and we rely on them to provide the offense and leadership. It's been pretty hard, but nobody is going to feel bad for us and give us games and we need to win, so this is a couple of very important weeks for us, with tough opponents, home or on the road, a lot of back-to-backs, so hopefully we can get some wins."
"It's not easy," Splitter confirmed. "The good thing is we have a system that everybody plays the same way every time, and it's the only thing that's saved us because we had a lot of players down and we still have some, so we gotta keep playing our game, keep pushing and doing whatever Pop wants us to do, depending on against who we're playing."
Splitter of course was one of the early casualties, with his right calf injury causing him to miss 20 of the first 21 games. He reported that he's feeling well and is trying to gradually increase his stamina to play his usual 22-28 minutes. He played 19 in Sunday's win at Denver and had a season-high 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting. He said he's still trying to regain his court sense and rhythm.
"Being aware of the game, the timing I think is always the hardest (part) when you take so many games off, yeah, I think the timing, and of course the speed and everything is slowly coming," Splitter said, adding "I think the last game I felt way better than the two before and today I hope to feel like that."
Splitter feeling closer to his best would sure be helpful with the red-hot Memphis Grizzlies in town. They have the second-best record in the league at 20-4 and they just put a stop to the Warriors' franchise-record 16-game winning streak Tuesday night. A big reason why the Spurs have been so successful against the Grizzles the past four years has been Splitter's stellar defense against Zach Randolph, who's averaging just 11.6 points on 34.0 percent shooting since almost singlehandedly ushering out top-seeded San Antonio in the first round of the 2011 playoffs.
"I think when you lose to a team in the playoffs it marks you and it gives you extra motivation against them," Splitter said. "I don't know what (edge) we have against Memphis but we know what we have to do to beat them, or to at least have a chance to beat them."
Splitter also noted that playing the Grizzlies again in the Western Conference Finals in 2013 really gave the team a chance to hone in on them individually and as a team, instead of just looking at them as just another opponent on the relentless regular season schedule.
"You have more time to study them," Splitter said. "You have two weeks to just think about them and how each player plays, how Zach (Randolph) plays, how Marc (Gasol) plays, so you kind of know how they play."
Ginobili meanwhile wasn't sure motivation has had much to do with the one-sided-ness of these games as much as fear and respect, two things he admits the Spurs have lacked against some below .500 opponents of late.
"I'm not sure really if that (playoff) loss even started something," Ginobili said. "But we've had some great games, we've focused against them in a different way than we did against the Lakers the other night for example, or in Utah, so I think that's the respect we have for them. We know they play hard, that if you don't bring it you're not going to win against them, so it's always an important test every time we face them."
Focus shouldn't be a problem with all these games against teams like not only Memphis twice but also Portland again, the Clippers, the Rockets, Oklahoma City on Christmas, at Dallas the next night and also two more against a Pelicans squad with Anthony Davis that has beaten the Spurs once at home already. Having the energy or "juice," as Ginobili calls it, to get through it is another matter entirely.
"The juice sometimes is hard because 18 games in 31 days is never easy," Ginobili said. "If you are facing teams like we are this week, it gets you hard. It's easier to maintain focus because you know that in any of these games if you don't play well, it's a sure loss, so the motivation has gotta be there, especially knowing that we're missing some soldiers so everybody else has to do a little bit more."
Though this schedule would theoretically enable the Spurs to pass up some teams in the standings if they could somehow manage to get through it unscathed, Ginobili viewed it as unrealistic given the team's injury situation and all the back-to-backs they'll have to negotiate.
"(The goal is) definitely not to leapfrog anyone," Ginobili explained. "This is going to be a couple of tough weeks and I take it as more of a way to maintain where we are than to make a step ahead. I think that step is going to be done, if done, when everybody's back and we're feeling better about ourselves, everybody's in shape, so I take this end of the year as a chance to stay where we're at, and we'll start building in January, February, during the Rodeo Road Trip, stuff like that."
Sure, "Let's go out there and maintain where we are," isn't much of a rallying cry, but the West is so brutal that being anywhere in the top eight entering the new year will have to be considered a success for the Spurs. What the team desperately needs is for everyone to get healthy and to stay healthy, to build some rhythm and continuity and a rotation, but who knows when or if that's ever going to happen? It wasn't until last March that the Spurs finally had their full squad last year. But when they did, they took off like a rocket. For now, they'll have to settle for being within shouting distance of the Rockets in the standings.