LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 20: Manu Ginobili #20 of the San Antonio Spurs reacts in the second quarter while taking on the Los Angeles Clippers in Game Four of the Western Conference Semifinals in the 2012 NBA Playoffs on May 20, 2011 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
With the Spurs steam-rolling opponents by playing fantastic team basketball, individual performances are sometimes overlooked, especially underwhelming ones. When a team operates at such a high level, it's OK to do so, since it's clear that the whole is better than the sum of its parts and everyone is contributing enough for the team to win.
Role players in particular get excused because match-ups determine how big an impact they have, while stars are supposed to rise above that and contribute consistently. Tony Parker was amazing in the first round, and while his production dropped, he still won his match-up in the second. Tim Duncan has been consistently the best big man in both rounds of the playoffs, gifting us with some throwback performances. The only part of the Big Three that hasn't shined yet is Manu Ginobili.
Manu started the year on fire; he carried the momentum from the previous season to lead the team in points before getting injured. After returning, Manu had a couple of setbacks that prevented him from regaining form for a few weeks. In the meantime, Tony Parker rose to the challenge and, with great performance after great performance, became the team's most important backcourt player. This led Manu to adjust, in order not to disrupt the Spurs improving play.
With the Spurs boasting multiple scoring threats, Manu's transition into a more of a facilitator role was expected, if not inevitable. His assist percentage in the regular season was the best of his career, and he complemented the more Parker-centric offense by improving his 3-point shooting to a career high .413%. His usage dropped to the levels he showed in his second season but without the burden of scoring, Manu could focus on upping his rebound percentages and efficiency as a shooter. His turnover rate climbed a bit, but that was to be expected. Basically Ginobili used his versatility to become the player the Spurs needed: a medium usage/high efficiency player that could hit the 3 and set up his teammates while playing almost 7 minutes less than the previous year.
Just like Duncan, if you looked at Manu's numbers adjusted per minute, he was having one of the best years of his career.
The playoffs came along and, as was expected, Manu saw his minutes increased. While his rebounding and assists numbers remained virtually the same, Manu is scoring fewer points in a less efficient way. His true shooting percentage and his effective field goal percentage are at career low for the playoffs. He's shooting an abysmal .257 from 3 and getting to the free throw line roughly three times a game, consistent with his regular season numbers, but a far cry from the eight free throw attempts a game he averaged against the Grizzlies last season and his career playoff numbers as a whole.
Manu is still being smart with his shot selection for the most part, taking mostly 3-pointers and shots at the rim. He is converting at a very high rate on the latter, with a 68% success rate in the restricted area, but the problem comes when shooting beyond the arc. Manu is taking 37.3% of his shots from the outside the 3-point line and only converting on 21% of those attempts. He's much better from the corner, but he has attempted fewer shots from there. Granted, those numbers might be skewed by his awful shooting against the Jazz, but his 35% against the Clippers is still below average for a guy that attempted over 5 3-pointers per game in that series. When you add those long range shooting woes to the fact that his mid-range game has been bad in limited attempts, it's clear why Manu is not having a good shooting performance in the playoffs.
The team still looks like an offensive juggernaut even with Manu only contributing 11.3 points a game in an inefficient manner, but going forward the Spurs are going to need Ginobili to hit those 3s and ideally, get back to his regular season average of 75% of made shots at the rim while drawing more fouls. To do that, Manu will probably have to be more patient with his shot selection from beyond the arc (only around half of his makes have been assisted) and know when and who to attack off the dribble. Manu's reputation as a contact exaggerator is actually hurting him with the refs, who seem to swallow their whistles in most doubtful situations involving Manu.
Being a Manu fanboy, it's impossible for me not to mention that Ginobili is a rhythm player and that deferring to Parker so often has probably taken its toll on Manu's scoring, but as long as the team is winning, there is no reason to change the game plan. With Duncan turning back the clock and a potential Parker resurgence against Westbrook (and Fisher!), Manu can settle in to his role of facilitator. As for his 3-point shooting, the good news is Manu is so below his career averages that there's no way he doesn't see an uptick in efficiency going forward. His defense has been acceptable so far, even if he occasionally gets burned by athletic players and gambles a little too much; his defensive rating of 99 (only better than Jackson's, Neal's and Parker's) wouldn't be as worrisome if his offense was as good as it was during the regular season. My only concern, and the reason I wrote this piece, is that by adjusting his game to fit the team's new dynamic, Manu might not be ready to take over games when Parker and Duncan can't impose their will. That's when Ginobili is most needed: to be the spark that reignites the Spurs' offense. Yet he hasn't been that in the playoffs as consistently as he has in the past, and the Spurs will need that against OKC and in a potential finals against the defensively stout Eastern teams.
If we were talking about any other player, I would be genuinely concerned. But not with Ginobili. When/if the time comes, Manu will be ready. He'll put on the cape and come to our rescue, previous performances be dammed. How do I know this, you ask? Because he's Manu Ginobili.