AT&T CENTER–Surveying the court ahead, catching a glimpse of Tim Duncan running side-by-side with Chris Johnson towards the rim, Manu Ginobili instantly started calculating steps and angles in his head. The equation solved as quickly as it appeared, Ginobili threaded a full court pass with just the proper amount of spin to reach its destination.
A transition layup, a foul, and a highlight. It was the perfect blend of art and science that Ginobili specializes in tiptoeing; the kind that borders on magic. A magic not so coincidentally absent from the AT&T Center over the past month.
"It's a huge difference for us, he changes the game for us," Duncan said of Ginobili. "He's done it for years. To have him back out there and to have another x-factor is huge for us."
It has been a struggle for the San Antonio Spurs, literally limping to the finish line nursing a myriad of injuries. Ginobili's hamstring, Gary Neal's legs, Boris Diaw's back, Tony Parker's everything. And yet, for a brief stretch in the first half on the last night of the regular season against the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Spurs caught a reminder of everything they could be.
With 6:14 remaining in the second quarter Ginobili checked in for Danny Green, reuniting the Big Three with second-year sensation Kawhi Leonard in a lineup the Spurs figure to lean on heavily during the playoffs.
Tony Parker immediately found Ginobili for a layup, reprising the backcourt chemistry the duo have developed over the years. A few plays later a missed Dante Cunningham jumper led to Duncan's fast break layup. After a Matt Bonner three-pointer, Kawhi Leonard knocked the ball loose from Mickael Gelabale, blitzing his handle from the weakside just as Gelabele was coming out of a spin–an old Ginobli specialty.
Suddenly Parker found himself streaking down the middle of the court with Ginobili and Leonard for the first time in over a month, ending in an emphatic slam from Leonard.
"We know what we can be, we've done it all season long," Duncan said. "We've done it for years."
In the roughly six minutes the Spurs premier lineup played together they scored 23 points to the Minnesota Timberwolves 14, quite a feat for a team that had struggled to hit 23 points over an entire quarter at times.
Parker danced and drove his way around defenders, Ginobili manipulated defenders, and Leonard filled in the gaps while Duncan remained his consistently spectacular self on both ends.
The Spurs lost, yes, but it was a loss in a game that amounted to little more than a glorified preseason game. Derrick Williams went off for 21 points, Greg Stiemsma peppered the Spurs defense from midrange, and parents covered their children's eyes as DeJuan Blair launched midrange jumpers unabated.
Nando De Colo and Patty Mills combined for 20 minutes they probably won't see in any playoff game, and the second loudest reaction from the crowd–after Ginobili entering the game–was perhaps an offensive foul committed by Aron Baynes that the crowd vehemently disagreed with.
There have been concerns over the Spurs this past month, but if the group that played the second quarter can carry heavier minutes in the first round, none of the past month matters.
"We had a struggling month but we are who we are so to speak," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "That can be very different between now and Sunday. We'll be who we are on Sunday as opposed to who we are today."
What the Spurs will be is a little healthier, a little more rested, and should that continue to hold true, significantly better.