Manu Ginobili has that look again.
I think you have to be a seasoned Spurs fan to notice it, somebody who watches the team game in and game out, year after year. It's not that he ever showboats after a big basket or a nice pass, but there is something noticeably different about him when he's feeling confident in his body and his game -- a Venn diagram that's had smaller and smaller congruent orbits over the years.
When he's on, everything about Ginobili's game moves a beat faster, a twitch quicker and a few inches higher. He soars for rebounds he normally doesn't try for, especially on the offensive glass. He attacks the rim more consistently and finishes with dunks. He probes the defense looking for mismatches to exploit, and when he gets a big on him he strikes quickly, looking to go around him or back the guy off enough to shoot the open three. The way he went around Phoenix's Markieff Morris, nearly 12 years his junior, in the second quarter for a layup was a perfect example. Ginobili didn't call for a screen or anything. He simple beat his defender off the dribble with a quicker first step. And it's not like Morris is some seven-foot stiff. When Ginobili isn't feeling himself, he doesn't dream of taking anyone off the dribble without a screen. He just jab steps or pump-fakes or does whatever crafty veteran thing he thinks of to buy a few inches of space and release a desperate fadeaway jumper. Not Wednesday though.
Most of all you can tell Ginobili is self-aware and fully-operational when the happy-go-lucky disappears from his face. Instead, he looks angry from tip-off to whistle, snarling, cussing, always agitated, animatedly gesturing at teammates and referees and to the heavens. He has little tolerance for the mistakes of his teammates and even less for his own, gritting his teeth or grabbing what's left of his hair after every missed shot or turnover or missed rotation. He cannot accept anything less than perfection from himself when he feels that he's on his game.
Maybe my favorite part of Ginobili playing well is that I don't have to listen to Bill Land or Sean Elliott patronize or feel sorry for him. The past season and change I swear there'd be these games where Manu shoots like 2-of-9 or whatever and goes like whole quarters without scoring and when he finally makes one they make too much of a big deal about it, you know, like parents noticing their toddler making a face?
"Daaaaaaw, lookit that Manu made a jumper, isn't that adorable?"
"He's so tricky!"
Funny, but the last two weeks I haven't heard Elliott imploring the Spurs to use Kawhi Leonard as the third option. Against the Suns, Gino made two or three buckets where Land and Elliott just talked over the plays, carrying on about whatever track they were on, barely looking up to notice the action. Ho-hum, another Ginobili basket, no different than Parker or Duncan. I prefer this.
Without question it's undeniable that the best, most sustained stretches of superduperstar-level play, where Manu is legitimately a top-10, top-20 player, have come when Tony Parker has either been slumping or out of the lineup altogether. This isn't a lead-in to some Tony vs. Manu flame war. It's just a statement of fact. The two of them have rarely ever been superstars together, in seasons or in individual games. As one's game rises, the other's sags. It's how it's always been. If "A game" Manu and "A game" Tony could ever co-exist (along with this current Duncan and Leonard, Splitter, Diaw, et al.) the Spurs would never lose. Basketball just doesn't work that way though. There are only so many shots to go around, there can only be one Highlander, yadda yadda yadda.
Ginobili has always summoned a different level of urgency -- and there's a different aura around him -- when Parker wasn't available to lead the team. Here are last season's numbers with and without Parker (individual games listed are without). Remember, this was the worst season of Ginobili's career and one in which he was never completely healthy from Mid-January on.
11/10 @Por W 17 pts, 5-of-8
2/24 @Phx W 12 pts, 1-of-5
3/3 Det W 17 pts, 6-of-8
3/6 Chi W 18 pts, 7-of-14
3/8 Por L 16 pts, 6-of-15
3/11 OKC W 12 pts, 4-of-11
3/12 @Min L 7 pts, 2-of-10
3/14 Dal W 7 pts, 2-of-9
3/16 Cle W 14 pts, 4-of-9
3/18 GS W 16 pts, 5-of-16
Without Parker 10 games, 13.6 ppg, 48-of-105, .457 FG (8-2, .800)
With Parker 50 games, 11.4 ppg, 181-of-434, .417 FG (37-13, .740)
I don't know how long we're gonna get this Manu before something goes wonky with his body or his game. I'm just gonna enjoy it while it lasts. Admittedly, I had some doubts if we'd ever see it again, but now we have definite proof that even at the ripe old age of 36, Ginobili is still one of the handful of best ballers on the planet.
Be sure to read Chris Itz's recap of the game.
Standard Pop Quote:
"There was no special defense that I'm aware of that others aren't. It was effort, good reads and focus. We did switch up defenses quite often to keep them off balance. Other than that, it was great effort."
By The Numbers:
13,661: The paid attendance at the US Airways Center, which seems like a perfectly reasonable total (ahem) for a major metropolitan city to watch an exciting, surprisingly competitive team against the defending conference champions.
42,064: Career minutes for Tim Duncan, entering the game.
42,027: Career minutes for the Suns 13-man active roster, entering the game. (They're like 172 minutes ahead of him now.)
7: Only the seventh time in his career Ginobili has totaled at least 24 points, six rebounds and seven assists in the regular season.
25: How many games it took before each starter to miss at least one start, though Leonard and Green were by coaching decisions, not injury and they did come off the bench. Those two -- along with Ginobili, Mills and Belinelli -- have played in every game.
27:23: The most minutes Ginobili has played since Nov. 30 vs. Houston. It will be interesting to see how much juice he has for the Warriors tonight, if he plays at all.
2-of-3: Leonard, from the three-point line. He's shooting 41 percent from deep in December.
3-of-12: Leonard, from two. Say, that's different. He couldn't get anything to roll in for him, and there were several that were just in-and-out.
24: How many points the Spurs bench had in the first meeting vs. the Suns, a 99-96 win on Nov. 6. Ginobili had 24 all by himself this time around and the bench outscored the Spurs starters 58-50 and doubled the Suns bench 58-29.
Sequence of the Game:
In a game dominated by perimeter play, the Spurs finally built a cushion for themselves with a decent stretch from their their bigger guys. The Suns were up 73-72 with five minutes to go in the third when the Spurs got two free throws from Leonard, two more from Duncan off a nice shovel pass from Ginobili, a Diaw layup from Ginobili, a free throw from Splitter and then another layup from Diaw to finish off a 9-1 run and make it 82-73, Spurs. Eventually they'd give up that lead to the Suns before having to make another run late to finish the game off, but it was nice to see the bigs getting to the line a bit when the Spurs have struggled to do so all year.
Tweets of the Night:
Suns have neon orange shoes. Spurs counter with Matt Bonner.— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneysaen) December 19, 2013
NBA players accidentally hitting a court side fan with the ball on an errant pass will never not be funny.— Pounding the Rock (@poundingtherock) December 19, 2013
Whirling Butt Cheeks style from Boris for another classy layup.— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneysaen) December 19, 2013
Once again we're all reminded why Manu is a four letter word here in PHX. #SunsVsSpurs— Jon Bloom (@JonBloom) December 19, 2013
Cute effort Phoenix. Stick to what you do best, housing old people and melanoma.— Gregory Popovich (@FakeCoachPop) December 19, 2013
i know it's early, but: beyond manu ginobili, are there any other real candidates for 6MOTY right now? crushing it, is he not?— Aaron McGuire (@docrostov) December 19, 2013
Those referees tonight, Marc Davis, Mark Lindsay and Derek Richardson, were awful. Not only were they missing fouls, but they couldn't see simple things like who the ball was off of out-of-bounds, whether Leonard had his foot behind the three-point line, and even who got fouled. It's one thing to confuse one of the Morris bros. for the other, but to let the Suns send P.J. Tucker up there instead? Good lord. Davis is the only one in the crew I'm familiar with, but I've never liked him and believe him to be biased against the Spurs. He never, ever, ever gives Ginobili a call. I snarl every time I see him about to work a Spurs game.
Your Three Stars:
3. Boris Diaw (18 pts): I hate to say it, but the Spurs looked more effective on both ends of the floor with Diaw than Splitter, who still looked rusty -- more defensively than offensively, surprisingly -- coming off his calf strain. He just couldn't stay with Channing Frye, who kept burying open threes on him. Diaw slowed Frye down a bit and provided some spacing for the offense and a couple of easy buckets for others with his passing. The Warriors should provide Pop some more data to sample.
2. Tim Duncan (52 pts): A little sloppy with five turnovers, but I attribute a bit of that to playing with unfamiliar point guards instead of Parker, with whom Duncan almost plays exclusively. Plumlee hurt him a couple times in transition and on the offensive boards, but Duncan was solid against him on post ups and finished with 17 and 13.
1. Manu Ginobili (41 pts): Either Ginobili or Duncan have been the first star in the last ten games, 11 of 12 and 12 of 14. What is this, 2005?
@Golden State Warriors (14-12), Thursday, Dec. 19:
The ridiculously compacted December schedule rolls on for the Spurs, in the midst of a grueling stretch of 11 games in 17 nights. The seventh of those 11 has them in my neck of the woods to play the somewhat disappointing Dubs, who nevertheless won their most recent game in a rout 104-93 at home versus the Pelicans, with New Orleans outscoring them by 12 in the fourth quarter to make the final score look more respectable. They were sparked by the return of Andre Iguodala, who had missed the past 12 games with a hamstring pull, and Stephen Curry and David Lee had big nights. The Warriors are missing backup bigs Festus Izili and Jermaine O'Neal, so they'll probably use a ton of small ball against the Spurs and look to break up the tandem of Duncan and Splitter. That's assuming Duncan plays, of course. There's a school of thought that both he and Ginobili could sit and Pop could make this a white flag game with the Thunder on the docket on Saturday. I for one hope that's not the case, as I will indeed be in the house and do not want to be punched in the shoulder by Andrea after every Warriors basket. She bought us tickets for my Christmas present and I have no idea where they'll be. Kinda exciting.