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The "old Manu" returns in 109-86 rout of struggling 76ers

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

I feel bad for the 76ers.

And I'm not saying that in a "OMG we're so much better than your sucky team" kind of way. Like, their situation legitimately sucks. Philadelphia traded for Andrew Bynum in the offseason, securing one of the few remaining true centers for what they hoped was their long-term future. But here they sit, 15-20 after their eighth consecutive road game in a 109-86 loss to the Spurs, completely unsure if their new franchise big man well ever step onto the court in a Philadelphia uniform.

As for the long road trip, the Spurs know what that's all about. Gregg Popovich asked prior to tip whether there's been a rodeo going on in Philly (we later found out it was Disney on Ice that had taken control of the Wells Fargo Center), drawing a hearty media-style laugh from all involved. You know, the ones that go on longer than the level of humor involved should actually call for? Anyway, the Sixers were tired, and Tim Duncan has an idea of what that feels like.

"You know what, I talked to Malik (Rose) before the game, and I didn't know they were out on the road that long. It's impressive," Duncan said, sympathizing with the struggling 76ers. "I know they're just dying to get back home, and that last game of that trip ... you try to give it your all but usually you're kind of dead out there. I can understand that.

"Our guys kind of played well tonight. We made some shots. We took them out."

Manu Ginobili did most of the taking out, too. There's no question the Spurs' locker room seems happier after a good Manu performance. They know they need him healthy. In a game that was over literally the second the ball was tipped, it was Ginobili's dunk in the first quarter that gave his team what looked like a sense of relief.

"I just do that once in a while. I don't want them to get too confident thinking that I'm going to do that often," Ginobili said, grinning. "I just saw the lane to the basket and I attacked. I felt good enough to dunk it. It hasn't happened many times this year ... at all.

"I think it was the first on a five-on-five. It's good to have that feeling back."

That dunk, after crossing over and weaving through the lane, is another bullet-point on a growing list of signs that Manu is rounding back into form, if he isn't there already.

"You see it piece by piece. He's getting more comfortable out there," Duncan said. "That's more of what he's looking for, putting stretches of minutes together so he can get his rhythm and his wind back.

"All that together, he's looking great."

The play of the night came in the third quarter when Ginobili found Tiago Splitter rolling to the basket, as he does. But he put the pass through Thaddeus Young's legs, naturally, to complete the play. The thing is, it's what Manu does. It's the right basketball play, nothing more.

"I know Tiago's going to roll, and guys are big, so they have long legs. Sometimes I feel like (it's easier) to get the ball through them than around them," Manu said, without any thought of the idea of showboating. "A lot of people talk about it because it's not something that happens often, but I find it (easier). I just do it naturally."

We, as Spurs fans, marvel at what Ginobili has done throughout his career, possibly to an unhealthy extent. But listening to him talk about a bounce pass between a defender's legs being the right basketball move in a certain situation reinforces the understanding of what makes this unorthodox southpaw so unique as a future Hall-of-Famer. It's not a "look at me" move to throw a basketball through Thad Young's A-gap, it's the absolute right play to make. It's what makes Manu Ginobili who he is, and it's what has allowed him to prosper as an elite professional in a sport saturated with length and athleticism. It's what has made him one of the most entertaining players to watch in league history.

The story from last night isn't the game. San Antonio did what they were expected to do to an exhausted team that is nowhere near the level at which the Spurs currently operate.

Tony Parker led the team in scoring once again, and Tim Duncan continued to play his inexplicably wonderful game at 36 years old. But these observations have become comfortingly old hat.

On this night, with one all too familiar crossover, left-handed dunk, the old Manu made his return.