AT&T CENTER–Bringing the ball up the court with roughly a minute remaining in the third quarter, Manu Ginobili watched as both his offense and the Los Angeles Lakers' defense began to settle into their sets. A player that lives between moments, Ginobili saw the briefest of opportunities and seized it.
Ginobili's three-point attempt from the top of the key came as Ginobili plays often do–without reason or warning. The ball knifed through both the net and any momentum the Lakers had mustered.
"I knew it was my time," Ginobili said. "I know I'm not in my best shape physically and basketball-wise, but I thought I had a little window there to try to risk and it went well.
"Sometimes players take some risks because we believe that we need something to get us going. After 11 years together [Popovich] knows the way I play. I seek my moment."
These are the moments that Ginobili and the San Antonio Spurs live for, shedding the haze that clouded the last month of their regular season and reclaiming the focus that had defined their rise to defensive prominence all season long.
With Kobe Bryant tweeting the game from home, the Spurs defense focused on cutting off the interior passing in the Lakers' offense. Save for a few brilliantly designed plays out of timeouts that set up some quick hitting high-low action between Gasol and Howard, the Spurs packed the paint, getting long arms into cramped passing lanes and generally taking all flow away from a Lakers offense that finished with 18 turnovers.
Instead the Lakers settled for slightly contested Gasol jumpers, which he missed more often than not, and awkward Howard post up moves attempted after the Lakers big man failed to establish deep position.
"I thought tonight was the best defense we've played in three or four weeks," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "It came at a good time. And we rebounded. There's no stop until you get the board and we did a pretty decent job of that tonight."
With the beginning of the playoffs came renewed intensity from the Spurs.
Early in the first quarter Tony Parker knocked a Steve Blake shot attempt loose, then raced, collided, and beat Blake to the loose ball, shaking free just enough to get a shot attempt up before a foul floor him. The scrapes and bruises accumulated over the season still exist, but in that moment they weren't felt.
"On the defensive end everybody was focused on stopping Gasol and Dwight. We tried to help as much as we can and go as hard as we can on them," Parker said. "For me personally, I had a rough shooting night in the first half, but in the second half it was better. I needed to get in a rhythm."
Parker started the game shooting 3-12 in the first half, finishing with 18 points on 8-21 from the field. For much of the game Blake did a great job of surrendering a step to gain an advantage, swiping at the ball just as Parker showed it.
His dribble penetration, however, was still something that factored into the Spurs victory beyond just the eight assists the tallied. The Spurs missed shots, and are still off the elite execution they displayed earlier in the season, but with their three stars once again in the lineup the Spurs were able to generate three-pointers and free throws against an undermanned Lakers team that struggles with both.
"It was a very physical game. It was a good start to our playoff run. We shook off a lot of cobwebs we've had over the past 10 games or so," Duncan said. "It was great to have everybody back out there together. It was a good start overall."