By Jeff McDonald
OKLAHOMA CITY — When Manu Ginobili crumpled to the AT&T Center floor Saturday night, bringing a hush over a sellout home crowd, it might have seemed like trouble for the Spurs.
Gary Neal looked at it as something different.
“It’s an opportunity,” said Neal, a reserve guard turned emergency starter by a rash of perimeter injuries. “You go out there and compete, and try to prove you deserve the minutes.”
The Spurs were clinging to a one-point lead over Boston when Chris Wilcox’s knee slammed into Ginobili’s left thigh on an illegal pick, sending the Argentine sixth man hobbling to the locker room for good with 2:42 left in the first quarter.
Behind 20 points from Neal and an all-hands-on-deck approach from everyone else, the Spurs did what they have done more often than not this season. They patched things together and figured out a way to win.
The 103-88 victory they eventually pocketed over the Celtics wasn’t their first shorthanded win of the season. Just the latest.
The Spurs are 19-6 this season, despite playing exactly five games at full strength and facing 15 of 23 games on the road.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has a simple solution for handling an injury-shortened bench.
“Whoever is available,” he said, “that’s who plays.”
As the Spurs head to Oklahoma City, to meet a Thunder team that was won 10 in a row en route to the NBA’s top record of 19-4, that “next man up” approach takes on its most serious challenge yet.
The Spurs have been playing without a legitimate small forward since Nov. 19, when Stephen Jackson broke the pinkie on his shooting hand two games after Kawhi Leonard went on the shelf with left quadriceps tendinitis.
Both those players were instrumental in limiting NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant to 23 points in the teams’ first meeting this season, a last-second 86-84 victory for the Spurs on Nov. 1.
There are signs the Spurs might get Jackson back for tonight’s game, but now Ginobili’s status is in doubt due to a painful left thigh contusion.
“Every team goes through these ups and downs with injuries,” said point guard Tony Parker, whose 21-footer as the horn sounded provided the winning points against OKC in November.
“It’s the way you handle those ups and downs that makes you a good team.”
Neal has been the biggest beneficiary of the Spurs’ injury woes to date.
A third-year guard who began the season fighting for time off the bench, Neal entered the starting lineup after Jackson’s injury and has lifted his scoring average to a career high 12 points per game.
His 20-point night against the Celtics was his fourth since Nov. 29.
“You never wish for injuries, but just the opportunity to start in the NBA is a blessing,” said Neal, who has started 13 of the last 14 games at shooting guard.
He isn’t the only Spurs player who has seen his role change dramatically courtesy of injuries to others.
Nando De Colo was expected to spend most of his rookie season as an apprentice. Now the French guard is logging minutes both early and late in games, and providing key playmaking.
Cory Joseph was supposed to be in Austin with the Development League, but the second-year point guard has been a capable minutes-eater in the backcourt at times over the past three weeks.
Brazilian center Tiago Splitter has scored in double figures in seven straight games, proving productive enough to be elevated to the starting lineup next to Tim Duncan.
“Everybody has that ‘I have something to prove’ mentality,” Neal said. “When you have that, it gives you a chance to step on the court, compete and win.”
The Spurs realize they can’t keep living this way forever. They will need to one day get to full strength in order to make a deep run in the Western Conference playoffs.
Tonight, however, they head into Oklahoma City shorthanded again. And where some sense trouble, they see only opportunity.
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