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The fading brilliance of Manu Ginobili

He's not playing the way he used to, but he's still able to come up with stretches that amaze and astound the fans, and lead his team to wins. Here's a look at the lows, the highs, and the uncertainties of Manu's season in San Antonio.


What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals

-Hamlet, Act II Scene ii

Manu Ginobili is my favorite player in the league today. That's been true since I fell in love with his game in his rookie year during the first round of the 2003 playoffs. I was besotted by the way he'd regularly move to parts of the court where he had no business being, to pull off plays that he'd never be able to if he had stuck to where he was supposed to be. Like Ender Wiggin in his first stint in the Battle Room, he just couldn't stay still and be a helpless bystander. (Too soon for that reference? Oh yeah, the movie doesn't come out until November.) But the man is aging, and not everything about that process has been graceful.

That said, he's been a fixture on this playoff's highlight reel; and his latest entry was quite the jaw dropper.


If you're an NBA fan who's even mildly aware of the Spurs' run in the NBA playoffs, chances are you've already seen this clip. After all, it's a touch pass and a between the legs pass. Of course it's going to be featured in dozens of GIFs, videos and Dime Magazine posts. But what I see in this play isn't just the fleeting physical genius of a player who's able to redirect a ball with precision in a fraction of a second. To me, this play encapsulates the season that Manu's having this year: the lows, the highs, and the uncertainties.

The Lows

Injured multiple times for huge stretches of the year -- for the second season in a row. Inconsistent play and dropping efficiency. Flashes of the spectacular interspersed with pedestrian stretches and sprinkled with moments of plays so boneheadedly moronic that I cringe to even remember them, much less list them out here.

That three he took early in the shot clock with the Spurs leading in the second overtime of their first game against the Warriors? It was as ridiculous a play as I've ever seen him make. Yes, worse than the foul on Dirk in '06. I don't think I've ever seen him do anything so gobsmackingly dumb.

It was thoughtless, and that's really the worst of it. As a player known more for his heady play than his athleticism, you'd expect him to make a smart play with the game on the line. Instead, his miss triggered a Warriors fast break which led into a sequence that ended with the Spurs down by 1. It was inexcusable and I completely understand why Pop said he immediately thought of trading him.

Lately, when the games are close, Manu is just as likely to make a bad pass as he is to ice the game for the good guys. The fact that I could say that about the majority of players in the league doesn't soothe me. He's my favorite player. He's not supposed to be like most of the players in the league. He's supposed to be elite. He's supposed to make me gasp -- in a good way. He's amazed me time and again throughout his career with his iconoclastic way on the court, and I've loved him for it. The recognition that he's possibly mortal is a blow that I wasn't expecting to take this year, especially after he played so well in last summer's Olympics.

The Highs

There have been so many highs this year, and that's impressive considering he suited up for less than 75% of San Antonio's regular season games. And this postseason has overflowed with plays that prove that when he's on, he's as capable as ever of delivering those quintessentially Manu-esque moments we've come to know and love.

Mere seconds after that horrible shot against Golden State, Manu found himself open and drained a game winning three, which is the same thing that he's done his entire career: make a bad play only to turn around and immediately make up for it by doing something unexpected and awesome. Honestly, how many times has that sequence played out during a Spurs game? It's gotta be in the hundreds.

But of all of the highs from this postseason, I keep coming back to his nutmegging of Tayshaun Prince in the first quarter of Game 4 against the Grizzlies. It's a fantastic bit of legerdemain, no doubt. But it's so much more. Take a look at it here from a few different angles and try to see it again for the first time.

He's running sideways ahead of a fast break, looking back over his shoulder and calling for the ball as Kawhi Leonard brings it over half court. As Kawhi is cut off at just above the three point line he sees Manu and slings a pass that nearly travels directly over the head of Cory Joseph, who's cutting in between the two of them. This is the instant that the GIF at the beginning of this story slows down. And deservedly so, as it's going to take me a while to unpack everything that happened in the time it takes you to blink twice.

Manu tracks the ball's approach and slows down to meet its path toward him, and as he begins to raise his hands to receive the pass, he becomes aware, if he wasn't already, of Joseph's cut toward the bucket. While continuing to track the ball and stretch out to receive it, Prince stations himself just as every junior high school kid is taught to, between his man and the basket.

As the path of the ball intersects with Ginobili's hands, he has to make himself acutely aware of several things: Joseph's speed and the direction of his cut, Prince's location and stance, his own momentum and balance -- all while judging the impact of the ball as he receives it.

His fingers wrap around the ball and in a single motion (one that's reminiscent of his bullet pass to Bonner against the Lakers last year) he redirects it downward at the precise angle that allows it to travel through Prince's legs, bounce off the court and hop up right in front of Joseph, who reaches out and snags the pass just in time to lay it up and in.

And the fannish part of me is busy screaming: You call THAT fading brilliance?

The uncertainties

What a gorgeous pass. What a testament to what an athlete is able to do after a lifetime of experience and training. This is what was on David's mind when he wrote Psalm 139 "I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made." This is about what Shakespeare was thinking about when he wrote the passage I led this piece off with. What a piece of work indeed.

But the next words out of Hamlet's mouth are "and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me-nor woman neither," and as LatinD wrote in his piece about Manu earlier this year, we are all going to die. It's inevitable. Deny it or embrace it, the truth is that there is no escape from the downward slide of irrepressible youth to mortality.

Manu's pass, while perfectly conceived and executed, was a very risky pass. The kind of pass he's tried throughout his tenure in San Antonio. And the kind of pass he has completed less and less often this year. Which makes me wonder whether it's possible for him to have the kind of renaissance that Tim Duncan is enjoying this year. Is there some kind of adjustment to his training, some kind of diet change that he can make that will help him stay on the court and avoid injury. Is there anything he can do to nudge that big nose up over the aging wall and eek out another couple of years of excellence?

If not, with the Finals approaching, can he at least find a way to have one more series of excellence while the brilliance fades?