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The best game I ever attended as a fan: The Manu Game

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J.R. Wilco relives the basketball game he had the most fun attending.

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Today, across SBNation's basketball blogs, everyone is writing about the best game they've ever experienced in person. Those of you who know that I was in the building when the Spurs won their fifth NBA championship might expect me to write about that game again. While it was a great night to be a Spurs fan, and it certainly was a thrill to be in the building when they clinched, it wasn't the best game I've witnessed.

First, Game 5 of the 2014 Finals was a blowout, which is a kind of game I don't particularly enjoy. Don't get me wrong, I love the result, but for a game to be truly great it has to have something more. Second, it has to be dramatic. The outcome has to be in doubt. Both teams need to engaged and firing on all cylinders. None of those things were the case last June. The Spurs were up 3-1 going in to that Sunday evening's game, and the Heat were all but finished. Once the Spurs weathered Miami's initial spurt, everything was over but the dancing, of which there was plenty.

But you don't have to travel very far back in time to find the best game I ever attended. In fact, you just need to go a mere 364 days, to Game 5 of the 2013 Finals -- or as I'll always remember it, The Manu Game. The game when my favorite player came back from a horrid stretch to help his team win a game they had to have.

*****

Manu Ginobili hadn't played well during the 2013 playoffs, and heading into Game 5 the Spurs were looking for answers. They'd lost two of the previous three games -- only winning when Danny Green and Gary Neal had a historic shooting night -- and the adjustments Erik Spoelstra had made seemed to have stymied San Antonio. It was a big enough deal that Coach Gregg Popovich decided to insert Manu into the starting lineup, something he hadn't done since the previous year in the Western Conference Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

There was a lot of talk before the game about whether it was wise to start Manu, but that's always the case when Pop messes with the lineup. What was different about 2013 was that people were worried that Manu might make things worse. For the first time in my life as a Spurs fan, Manu looked ... well, bad. It wasn't just that his shot was off, or that he was turning the ball over. It seemed like he was trying to handle the ball with his hands coated in grease. There were times he fumbled the ball away while just trying to execute a dribble drive. It was sad. It was disheartening.

Manu wasn't being Manu.

And this was the moment he was being re-inserted into the starting lineup: the fifth game of a tied series in which the Spurs' two wins had come on a last-second miracle shot (last second of the shot clock, anyway), and a night when two of their long-range bombers couldn't miss. Not the most optimistic of situations. If the Spurs lost, they'd be going back to Miami down 2-3. With both of the next two games on the Heat's homecourt. How would Manu play? How would the team play? I'm usually pretty optimistic about the Spurs chances, but I was nervous.

The Spurs came out looking good, and Manu was a revelation. He either scored or assisted on the all of the Spurs' first six scores and with just under five minutes left in the 1st quarter, San Antonio was hanging with Miami, 17-17. Then the Spurs went on a 19-5 run over the next seven minutes, building a 14-point lead that eventually ballooned to 17 before being trimmed to just a single point late in the third.

It was 75-74 with just three minutes left in the quarter. Miami only managed a single free throw for the rest of the third, but Manu went nuts. The Spurs run started with a 3-pointer from Green. Then, with the Spurs up by four, Manu took over.

On the right baseline against Ray Allen, Manu drove right and pulled up for a jumper outside the paint. Bucket and the foul. Spurs by seven. After a LeBron James miss, Green got the rebound to Manu who dribbled up the court, stutter-stepped Norris Cole, drove to his right and Euro-stepped into a gliding seven-foot jumper. Spurs up nine. Chris Bosh turned it over, but the Spurs next possession was in trouble until Manu found a wide-open Splitter cutting through the lane for and uncontested layup. Spurs by 11. Cole turned it over and Manu just missed a step-back three. James was fouled and made one of two before Manu got the ball from Green at half-court to set up the last shot of the quarter. Manu waited until six ticks left before driving -- again to his right -- and put up a floater from the edge of the lane that banked in perfectly. Spurs by 12. Pandemonium ensued.

Through the commercial timeout that followed, there was the biggest outpouring of adulation I've ever witnessed from a crowd to a player. The cheers turned to chants of "Manu! Manu!" and it wasn't just part of the arena. It came from everywhere. It was electric and I get chills just thinking about it. Manu was back.

In the fourth, he had two more baskets and two more assists. After every play, cheers cascaded down from the stands onto the court. Chants and applause and shouts: all directed toward the Argentine who had come back from the worst playoff performances of his career to lead the charge to put the crucial fifth game away. His final line: 8 for 14 from the field, 7 of 8 from the line, two rebounds, 10 assists, one steal, 24 points, and a game high +19.

Yeah, the story of that series doesn't have a happy ending -- for the team or for Manu -- but that night was magical. The crowd floated out of the arena chanting his name.

*****

The most fun I ever had writing about a game was actually the previous game I'd attended, Game 3 of the 2013 Finals when Green and Neal shot 3-pointers like they were layups and the Spurs blew out the Heat, 113-77. The Game Boss section of the piece I wrote about that night is still by far the best time I've ever had writing about basketball.

But last year's Game 5 was the game I received the most pleasure from attending.