by Yaron Weitzman | @YaronWeitzman
The San Antonio Spurs played a basketball game at Madison Square Garden Thursday night and, as is usually the case when the Spurs play a basketball game, an Argentinean guard who wasn’t in the starting lineup turned out to be one of the most valuable players on the court.
This night, though, was not like every other. On this night, the Argentinean who helped his team make an opponent feel helpless was neither wearing a black jersey nor was he primarily attacking the basket with his left hand. He didn’t seem to be sporting any male pattern baldness, either.
As the final minutes of what would be a convincing 100-83 Knicks victory ticked off the clock, all Manu Ginobili could do was watch from the bench as his fellow countryman, Pablo Prigioni, added the finishing touches to his 6-point, 9-assist, 3-steal masterpiece against that team that Knicks coach Mike Woodson had earlier described as “the best in basketball.”
“You know, he’s one of those Argentineans,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of Prigioni after the game. “That’s still a basketball miracle to me, when I think about all those Argentinean players that played on that team for so long, you know, one of the greatest teams ever. He was a part of that. Always solid. Always professional. Play to win 100 percent of the way, all the time. Always in the game. Always focused. He’s a typical Argentinean.”
Coming from a man who has coached Manu Ginobili for 10 years, and has spent nearly that entire time heaping praise upon him, this is the highest of compliments. It also one that, quite frankly, no one could have seen coming prior to Thursday night’s game. Under what circumstances was Gregg Popovich going to be asked a post-game question about the Knicks’ third-string point guard?
A hand injury to Raymond Felton, however, has moved Prigioni up the Knicks’ depth chart, and pushed him further into the MSG spotlight. And, whether a result of an increased comfort level with the NBA game, or of knowing that, with Felton and Iman Shumpert out of the lineup, there’s no need to worry about losing minutes, or perhaps a combination of both, the Knicks’ 35-year-old rookie no longer looks like the timid player that he was for the first quarter of the season.
Instead, there was Prigioni on the MSG floor Thursday night, playing like the point guard who led that Argentinean team Popovich was describing to a Bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics, “getting everyone to where they need to be at important times,” as Steve Novak would say after the game.
Ball movement, one of the main ingredients to the Knicks scorching 14-4 start to the season, was back. Amar’e Stoudemire (10 points) had a point guard on the court that he could run the pick-and-roll with. Steve Novak (15 points on five three-pointers) had space to shoot the ball. JR Smith (20 points) had room to dunk it. Manu Ginobili (8 points on 2-12 shooting), on the other hand, had neither, as Prigioni gave the Knicks something they have been in desperate need of since Raymond Felton went down on Christmas day: a fleet-footed pest of a perimeter defender, and a guard who can dribble into the teeth on an opposing defense.
“He (Prigioni) did an excellent job of penetrating tonight,” Tyson Chandler said. “You know, finding open shooters, making plays. But also on the defensive end. You know, he knows Ginobili really well and was giving a scouting report. When he was on him, he was very efficient in guarding him.”
Before the game, Mike Woodson spoke about needing his team to rediscover the stingy defense that it had played in those first 18 games. It’s no coincidence that they did on a night when Prigioni played 27 minutes, the most he’s played since November 28. On the season, New York’s defense is five points better per 100 possessions (108 compared to 103) when Prigioni is on the floor, according to 82Games.com.
“He was himself,” Carmelo Anthony said. “He ran the team. He attacked. He was aggressive. You know, a lot of times he gets out there and is trying to be the distributor too much. We need him to attack and tonight he did that. He put pressure on their defense and made everybody better out there.”
With so many injuries to the team, Prigioni’s ability to do these things could very well determine how many games the Knicks get to play in the Garden this May. He may not always outplay Manu Giniboli, but that he did Thursday night should certainly make the Knicks, their coaches and their fans feel better about their chances.