Manu Ginobili is supposed to be done. Last year's playoffs proved it. The Spurs are still considered a contender but most people pinned those title hopes on Parker and Duncan remaining at their current level and Kawhi Leonard taking a step forward. Anything Manu gives them is gravy, according to conventional wisdom.
Apparently no one told Manu that, because if the Grizzlies game is any indication, Ginobili seems to have a little something left in the tank. Overreacting to early season games is a tradition at this point and I can't claim I'm being particularly objective here, as I am an admitted unconditional Manu fan. But watch these plays and tell me if after last season you thought Manu could still do this this:
Manu goes hard to the rim after the give-and-go
We've seen this one a million times before. Manu (or Tony) pass it to Tim and see if they can make a straight away cut. If the give-and-go doesn't work, they can transition into a side pick-and-roll with Duncan. This is in fact one of the plays the Spurs could use to get Kawhi Leonard involved, as it basically requires a threat to shoot from outside and an explosive first step.
And that's exactly what Manu couldn't do last season, either due to physical limitations or mental ones. Ginobili rarely attacked decisively on situations like this one, often going through the motions until he could make a pass. Here, we can see Manu going at reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol and getting to the bucket before he or Zach Randolph can even react.
A beautiful floater
In this next one, Manu shows off the touch that has allowed him to convert finger rolls from the free throw line. He once again attacks using a screen that involves the Grizzlies' center -- in this case, Kosta Koufos -- so as to only have to deal with Zach Randolph as a help defender. Just like in the first play, it works beautifully, as Z-Bo is a little late to contest and Manu hits a floater.
I'd be remiss not to mention the Spurs' brilliant use of the shooter curl as a decoy. Patty Mills clears the strong side as Ginobili starts his drive. The Spurs use a very similar set to bring Tony Parker off three screens on the weak side, allowing him to either attack or take an uncontested mid-range jumper. The defense needs to be aware of the off-ball action, which opens up a lot of options for the ball-handler. Manu can drive (like he does), try to find the dive man, or kick it out to the weak side, where there are now two guys guarding three. This is type of dynamic play that the Spurs need to use to get Manu going instead of simple high pick-and-roll sets.
Manu scores off a broken play
This is Manu at his best. He gets a head start from his man after taking a big chance trying to keep his dribble alive with Pondexter going for the steal. Then he attacks the big man and head fakes his way into a layup. The reason the help defenders don't collapse is because at this point, the scouting report on Manu probably mentions that he is more dangerous creating for others than for himself. Manu struggled finishing in traffic last season, which caused him to be tentative. Here he just goes for it and the defense can't react in time.
Manu attacks off the high screen. Twice.
And here we go again. Manu uses a good Ayres screen to shake Pondexter and decisively attacks Koufos. The Grizzlies backup center isn't exactly the fastest guy out there but he's also no slouch on the defensive end. And yet he seems miffed at the fact that Ginobili is turning the corner and going to the rim as hard as he is. Once again, teams were getting used to Manu pausing to either find the dive man or a shooter on the weak side. You can see how Green moves to a spot on the floor where Manu can find him and Bonner slides to the corner. But Ginobili never hesitates.
The exact same things happen here: Ayres screens, Manu turns the corner and attacks the moving Koufos. Yes, Koufos looks terrible in both sequences, since everyone knows Manu
likes loves going left and he neither hedges hard nor drops back far enough to deter penetration. But Ginobili was in attack mode and ready to take advantage of the lapse, unlike last season.
Manu finishes in traffic on the secondary break
Ah, this one's probably my favorite so it's fitting it is the last one. Sometimes there are things that can't really be explained. Yes, a quick first step (to get separation from the on-ball defender) and strong upper body (to absorb contact) are necessary to be a great finisher in traffic, especially if you are a guard. A smooth touch is also necessary, of course. But sometimes the ball just rims out. It happened to Manu a lot last season and he seemed devastated when it did.
In his first really tough layup of the season, trying to finish in traffic against Tony Allen and Marc Gasol -- possibly the best perimeter and inside defender the NBA has to offer, respectively -- Ginobili banks it in. He lets it fly and it goes down after an alert Splitter sets a screen to free him. I can't tell you how many times the exact same sequence resulted in a miss for Manu last season.
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In case you didn't count them, that's six layups by Manu in one game. That's huge. According to Basketball-Reference, Manu only had two games with more than five layups all of last season. And the best part is it seems sustainable. The Grizzlies pick-and-roll coverage was not exactly stellar but it rarely is for most teams. Ball-handlers simply need to be ready to take advantage of the defensive breakdowns and Manu did in the season opener. And if the Spurs continue to use clever ways to get him the ball in motion, with the defense already on its heels, there is no reason why this healthy version of Ginobili can't score at a high rate.
I mentioned before that Ginobili didn't play like an old guy last season and I stand by it. It was Manu's outside shot and overall decision-making -- on both sides of the ball -- that were off. But even I have to admit that this is the spriest I've seen Manu in a while. It's obviously just the first game of the season and everything could go awry from here on out. I've rushed to declare Manu "back" before, simply because I wanted him back, so I really should be more careful now. But if this performance doesn't excite Manu fanboys everywhere, what will? Tempering expectations is what I should be doing here but when I'm this optimistic about Manu's prospects for the season, it would be dishonest to claim otherwise.
A healthy Ginobili, even at age 36, should be a fantastic offensive weapon. If preseason is any indication, his shot seems to be back and, at least for one game, so do his explosiveness and finishing ability. If taking the summer off can allow him to dodge any nagging injuries for the duration of the season -- like it did in 2010/11 -- Manu should be more than capable of providing a spark off the bench for this Spurs team.
And if that happens, look out, rest of the league. Because the Spurs are coming.
More from Pounding The Rock:
- J.R. Wilco talks about the Spurs win over the Grizzlies on The Phil Naessens Show
- Game Preview: San Antonio Spurs vs. Los Angeles Lakers
- Manu Ginobili's interview with Argentine paper Ole (translated)
- Tim Duncan's injury is only a bruise (contusion)
- Spurs snap two-game losing streak, beat Grizzlies in season opener