San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili (R) talks with referee Eli Roe during the first quarter against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center in Chicago on January 22, 2015. UPI/Brian Kersey | License Photo
SAN ANTONIO -- Despite the fact the San Antonio Spurs went 11-1 while Manu Ginobili was out with an injury, there is no doubt about the importance of the 13-year NBA veteran to the team's run toward another championship.
Ginobili scored a season-high 22 points in 15 minutes in his return to the Spurs and sparked the Spurs to a 104-94 victory over the Sacramento Kings on Saturday.
Ginobili missed 12 games with a testicular injury suffered Feb. 3 against New Orleans and the subsequent surgery and rehab. He wore a protective cup for the first time in practice this week and played like the injury was the furthest thing from his mind.
"If I play once a month, it helps," Ginobili joked. "I was very excited to be on the court again and competing with my teammates. I got a little bit tired. I'm a 38-year old man and I haven't played for a month so that was expected. I will say, though, that I didn't want to play more than (the 15 minutes)."
And it was hardly surprising for coach Gregg Popovich.
"I've seen him in the three workouts and if I hadn't, then I would've been surprised," Popovich said. "I didn't know how much he was going to play."
Ginobili helped San Antonio turned a close game into a runaway by scoring 13 points during a dominating third quarter and won for the eighth straight outing to remain unbeaten at home this season. The Spurs (53-9) improved to 30-0 at the AT&T Center this season, extending their record for the best home start ever by a Western Conference team.
The victory also allowed San Antonio to lengthen its regular-season home victory streak to 39 games, dating to an overtime loss to Cleveland last March. Their record is the best in franchise history after 62 games.
Kawhi Leonard led the Spurs with 25 points and 13 rebounds. David West added 12 points before fouling out late in the game and Boris Diaw had 11 points.
DeMarcus Cousins led all scorers with 31 points for Sacramento (25-36). Quincy Acy added 16 points and reserve Darren Collison had 11 for the Kings, who cited Ginobili's performance in their postgame comments.
"Manu was the difference-maker," Collison said. "It was unexpected with this being his first game back because we were thinking that he would have a little rust. He was slicing and dicing our defense, whether it was with his drives, his passes or his shooting. He gave them a great lift."
Three of the Spurs' regular starters (LaMarcus Aldridge, who had a migraine), Tim Duncan and Danny Green (rest) sat out. West, Diaw and Jonathan Simmons were inserted in their spots.
That trio had enough of an impact early to carry San Antonio to a 29-22 lead after 12 minutes when Leonard went scoreless. The Kings trailed by as many as 10 points in the second quarter before fighting back to 41-41 on a Cousins free throw with?4:43?left.
The Spurs reeled off a 9-2 run on the strength of a 3-point play by Leonard and 3-pointers from Diaw and Patty Mills to eventually forge a 57-54 lead at halftime.
Any suspense created by Sacramento's uprising in the second quarter was quickly dispelled by San Antonio's play in the first five minutes of the third quarter when they outscored the Kings 12-0 and built a 69-54 lead.
"Our offense got flat and turnovers killed us," Sacramento coach George Karl said. "It almost seemed like we weren't ready to play for the first four or five minutes of the third quarter. San Antonio tries to hit you pretty hard in the third quarter and they did it to us tonight. They just don't make mistakes. It's a team of a bunch of revolving pieces that work great together."
NOTES: The Spurs are 3-0 against Sacramento this season, winning 106-88 on Nov. 19 and 108-92 on Feb. 24. ... Kings coach George Karl played for the Spurs for five seasons (three in ABA, two in NBA) from 1973-78. He also began his coaching career in San Antonio as an assistant from 1978-80. ... On their way to a franchise-best 30-0 start at the AT&T Center, the Spurs have trailed for only 6 minutes and 35 seconds in 348 minutes played in fourth quarters this season. ... With the 104-101 win at Dallas on Thursday, the Kings erased a 22-game losing streak to the Mavericks in Dallas. Entering the game, it was the second longest active road losing streak to an opposing team behind Golden State's 32-game losing streak to the Spurs in San Antonio. The Kings had not won in Dallas since Feb. 27, 2003, (126-124 in overtime). ... Kings F DeMarcus Cousins has 30 or more points in 10 of his past 15 games and 40 or more points in two of those games. ... G Andre Miller scored his first basket for the Spurs in the fourth quarter