Manu Ginobili, future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer, has rarely been the best player on the San Antonio Spurs over his 11-year NBA career save for a playoffs here, a two-month hot-streak there, maybe a half-season at the absolute height of his powers in 2008, when the arcs of his athleticism and his three-point stroke converged at their apex. What he's always been though, in stark contrast to the stoic and steady excellence of Tim Duncan and the Mercury-in-high-tops fleet-footed brilliance of Tony Parker, was the one that inspired the masses, the guy who made the game-saving or game-winning play, the one who twisted the dagger into the opponent, the one who received the loudest boos on the road and left the other team's stars screaming curses at one another on their way to the losing locker room.
If Gregg Popovich is the team's pulsating brain, Duncan its champion's heart and Parker its tireless legs, then Ginobili is the balls. He's the guy who gives the team the swagger, the belief that it can overcome any odds, no matter how much younger, faster and springier their foes are. When he's at his absolute best Ginobili the passer makes a 5-on-5 game on a 94-foot court look like a 3-on-3 on a soccer pitch, the way he keeps finding teammates in acres of space, while simultaneously Ginobili the scorer repeatedly converts shots that you wouldn't even try in a game of H.O.R.S.E., only he does them over the outstretched arms of dumbstruck defenders.
While it's been far more common for Duncan or Parker to have big games in the last couple of seasons, rare has the occasion come up for us Spurs fans to lament a tough loss with a "Well Ginobili was awesome, but..." refrain, with perhaps Game 5 of last season's Western Conference Finals being the best exception that proves the rule. So yes, while it's true that many of us at PtR are unabashed Manu homers, there is a sensible, even pragmatic logic to wanting to see him play well, because historically speaking, when he does the Spurs so rarely lose.
I think it's perfectly objective to state that this postseason hasn't been nearly the trainwreck it's being made out to be. He was actually terrific against the Lakers despite the long injury layoff. Against the Warriors he had a game-winning shot in the series opener and 11 assists in the closeout win, with a 21-point performance in a Game 4 loss in between. Finally, against the Grizzlies, his numbers were modest, but he made plays here and there and generally brought more to the table than he took off.
Against the Heat in the Finals though, Ginobili's play through four games was impossible to rationalize or defend on any level, particularly in Games 2 and 4. It's not that he was just bad, but more damning was that he wasn't even a part of the narrative. It was like he was some spot player, a ninth man, entirely insignificant to the outcome. Even worse, Ginobili had no excuse to explain away any of it. He insisted he was as healthy and fit as he's been all season. He just had no rhythm or coordination with the ball, he couldn't get his body to do what his brain wanted and couldn't get into the flow of the games. He couldn't shoot it straight, couldn't stay out of foul trouble and even dribbling the ball was proving to be a challenge. Frankly, this is the guy we were expecting to see against the Lakers. It's like he was having a Benjamin Button playoffs.
No matter how bad the numbers have looked throughout the playoffs, we Manu fanboys (and fangirls) had faith. Surely he would snap out of his slump and have a good series sometime in these playoffs. Not so much against the Dubs though and definitely not against the Grizzles. The first two games against Miami weren't promising either, despite the nine day layoff the team got to rest ahead of them. The hope went from Manu having a great playoffs to one great series, to just one more great game... only we were running out of games.
I mean, he had to have just one more in him, right?
Well it turns out he did, and ironically it was the first time in 155 career playoff games where he had as many as 24 points to go with as many as 10 assists. In fact, he hadn't had even a regular season game like that since 2008. That Ginobili was given a start by Pop wasn't too hard to predict (I know because I predicted it), and yeah, I thought he would be aggressive and put up a couple of early shots, just to try and get himself going, but even I couldn't have imagined how well he started, scoring or assisting on 13 of the team's first 15 points.
I know this sounds stupid and arrogant to say, but really about two minutes into the game, I figured the Spurs would win and go to Miami up 3-2. All I needed to see was Manu hit his first shot, a contested three (later correctly changed to a long two) over Chris Bosh, then a bullet pass to a back-cutting Danny Green for a layup, followed by a pick-and-roll to Duncan for a huge slam. That was it, that's all I needed. The other 22 points and eight assists (as well as the hundred other plays various Spurs made in the thrilling win) were cake.
One of Manu's pet expressions for why the team wins or loses games is "juice," as in "we had that extra juice tonight" or "we just didn't have any juice." I'm almost certain he isn't talking about performance enhancers or Capri-sun, though with Manu you never know with the latter. Well, Ginobili sure had his juice on Sunday, the entire team was overflowing with juice throughout the game and the AT&T center threatened to break The Titanic's record for biggest full-scale drowning (note: I have no idea if this is true but for the sake of my joke I won't count any Biblical floods), so awash the arena was with this sweet, intoxicating juice.
The best part, for me, was watching him, at long last, abandon the mostly fruitless pick-and-rolls and just attack people Manu-a-Mano, especially Mike Miller, Norris Cole and Bosh on a switch, though he did have a sweet step-back jumper on LeBron James too. Hopefully we'll see more of that as this series shifts to Miami. When Manu is feeling confident and on his game, he still has enough game to take on anybody one-on-one and get off a quality look. On Sunday a great number of those looks went in, chants of "Manu! Manu!" filled the rafters and we got to see a legend in winter have one more moment in the sun, in front of fans who've been behind him through thick and thin. I'm just overjoyed that no matter what happens, he gave us at least one more great game to remember him by, and it was a night I won't ever, ever forget.
But man, it sure would be great if he remembered to bring his juice on the team's last road trip of the season.