Manu Ginobili is the emperor of a very peculiar kingdom. For whatever reason, he’s developed an odd habit of producing his best performance of a playoff series in Game 5, regardless of opponent or personal circumstance. It’s the damnedest thing, and one that by now one would assume Ginobili himself and the Spurs at large have noticed.
I took the time to go through Ginobili’s game logs for every playoff series he’s participated in that have gone at least six games, logging his “game scores” via basketball-reference.com.
Ginobili game scores in long playoff series
|Year||Opponent||Game 1||Game 2||Game 3||Game 4||Game 5||Game 6||Game 7|
|Year||Opponent||Game 1||Game 2||Game 3||Game 4||Game 5||Game 6||Game 7|
There have been 21 (now 22) playoff series in Ginobili’s tenure that have gone at least six games. As you can see, the fifth game has been the best in seven of those 21 series (and quite possibly eight of 22), while he’s never done it more than three times in any other games of those series, with almost completely even variation in the rest. His average game score in Games 5 is 14.2, while it’s not higher than 11.7 in games 1, 2, 3, 4 or 6. A fairly big gap, wouldn’t you agree?
So, why has this happened? There are a couple of easy guesses. For one, Ginobili has historically played better in home playoff games than on the road and 16 of those 22 Game 5’s have been at home. For another, these series went for six or seven games for a reason — the Spurs didn’t breeze through them. In 18 of those 22 the Spurs lost Game 4, either evening things up at 2-2 or putting them in a 3-1 hole. So Ginobili may have felt compelled to take the burden on his shoulders to reverse momentum.
I suspect there is some truth to both of those theories. But here’s the real interesting thing I discovered: “Manu in Game 5” is a fairly recent phenomenon. Of the seven previous occasions where the fifth game has been his best in a series, six of those have come since 2011, out of nine opportunities. It’ll likely be seven of 10.
My hunch? As he’s gotten older Ginobili has realized, perhaps subconsciously, that he can no longer be at his best in every game, even in the playoffs. He can summon these “throwback” performances just once or twice per series. So he’s saved them for Game 5’s, when the team has been at its most desperate need of them, in danger of falling in a 3-2 hole and an elimination game on the road. As you can see, win or lose, the subsequent Game 6’s following the heroic Game 5’s have mostly gone poorly for him. He’s not saving anything for the swim back, as it were.
The best playoff game of Ginobili’s career was indeed a Game 5. As you likely guessed, it was in the Western semi-final against the Seattle Supersonics in 2005. And four of his top ten playoff games have been Game 5’s, but surprisingly the Sonics game is the only one in the top five.
Ginobili top ten playoff games
Here are my ten personal favorite Ginobili game 5’s, ranked in order of how fondly I remember them:
10) 2017 semi-finals, vs. Rockets: Yeah, that game that just happened! Where the heck did that dunk come from? It reminded of the one he had in Game 7 of the Finals against the Pistons in 2005 (you can fast-forward to the 3:00 mark of the video). What made it extra sweet is he crammed it against Ryan Anderson, who you may recall gravely wounded one of Ginobili’s best friends, and I don’t mean Tony Parker. He also earned another bit of story-line redemption by ending the game with an emphatic swat of James Harden. Finally a block attempt against the star of a Texas rival that didn’t go awry!
9) 2006 first-round, vs. Kings: There is zero evidence of this game to be found on YouTube, but trust me, I watched it live and Ginobili was awesome in it, scoring 21 of his 27 in the second half and 13 in the fourth quarter. Here, you can watch highlights his 32-point, 9-rebound performance in Game 2 earlier that series and pretend. Game 5 was a welcome bounce-back performance for him after two straight stinkers, including his infamous turnover to end Game 3.
The interesting thing about this game for me is a postscript that arrived a decade later, and you may want to skip ahead to No. 8 unless you want me to ruin a great anecdote for you with messy facts. Consider that your SPOILER ALERT.
Okay, so you probably watched Ginobili share a heartwarming anecdote during Tim Duncan’s number retirement ceremony about Duncan going to extraordinary lengths to console him after that turnover against the Kings and how it inspired Ginobili to play much better in Game 5.
Except Ginobili’s memory doesn’t exactly mesh with the facts. In his retelling of the story, his turnover occurs in Game 4, not Game 3. The reality is that he was shaken enough by it that he was a complete ghost in Game 4 in a blowout loss. We may never know if Duncan gave him the pep-talk after Game 3 or Game 4, but either way, it’s a great story.
8) 2005 Finals, @ Pistons: Speaking of bouncing back from two straight stinkers, the Spurs couldn’t have been any worse in Games 3 and 4 at Detroit, losing by 17 and then 31 points. Detroit just looked bigger, stronger and more physical, imposing their will on the series. The Finals was a 2-3-2 format back then, and they were poised to take a 3-2 lead back to San Antonio, which would give them two cracks to repeat as champs.
Fortunately, Duncan, Ginobili and Robert Horry had something to say about that. It was hardly the most efficient shooting night for Ginobili —only 5-of-16— but he led the team in +/- by a mile and finished with nine assists. I guess he had scored enough in Games 1 and 2 to make enough of an impression on Rasheed Wallace, who stunningly left Horry wide open with the Pistons clinging to a 95-93 lead to go help on Ginobili.
Yeah, probably not his best idea.
7) 2011, first-round, vs. Grizzlies: One of just three occasions in which Ginobili has played a Game 5 when trailing 3-1 in the series. What makes this game unique is not that it was, by game score, the sixth-best playoff performance of his career or that it arrived when Ginobili was nearly 34 years old. No, it’s because he did it with a broken arm.
Probably the most noteworthy postscript of this series was that Richard Jefferson was so awful against the Grizzles that PATFO felt compelled to trade for the draft rights of a fellow who’d go on to torment them for the next 15 years, probably.
6) 2014, Conference Finals vs. Thunder: This isn’t the best game Ginobili’s played by any means, though 19 points on 7-of-9 shooting and 6 assists in 21 minutes is as efficient as it gets. This is what it was: the most important step of their redemption tour in 2014 and the one that left me fairly confident that the Spurs would go on to win that elusive fifth title. By this point the Thunder were a tougher match-up for San Antonio than the Heat were and had just beaten them badly in Games 3 and 4 in OKC. All the bad old memories of their 2012 series came flooding back into the hearts and minds of every Spurs fan.
Manu wasn’t having it. The Spurs started off sluggish in the game and fell behind by nine early, but once he, Boris Diaw and Patty Mills checked in, they quickly got back into it and tore the exhausted Thunder apart from the second quarter onward. The bench scoring was 55-to-26. Not only did this game prove that Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant were human after all, but Serge Ibaka looked fallible for once too.
5) 2005, semi-finals vs. Supersonics: The Spurs’ bench wasn’t quite as good in this one, with all of six points to their credit. Funny story though: Ginobili had been a starter the whole season but after San Antonio’s Game 1 loss in the first round to Denver Manu joined the reserves even though he was by far their best player in that contest. The lineup tweak worked and the Spurs won their next six playoff games, before running into a roadblock in Games 3 and 4 in Seattle. With the series knotted 2-2, Gregg Popovich reinserted Ginobili back into the starting lineup for Game 5 and he merely responded with statistically the best game of his postseason career, with 39 points on 10-of-15 shooting and 6 assists.
Manu basically ate Ray Allen’s soul in this game and the Sonics were disbanded on the spot. At least that’s how I remember it.
4) 2013, Finals vs. Heat: This was a bit of the opposite situation. Ginobili struggled mightily against the Heat, with just 30 points through the first four games and he was particularly bad in a Game 4 home loss when the Spurs blew a chance to take a 3-1 stranglehold on the series. He hadn’t been having a very good postseason at all, actually. So Pop handed him his first start of the year in Game 5, in an effort to get him going. He immediately popped a long-two in Chris Bosh’s mug on the first possession and took off from there, with 24 points —each shot seemingly more difficult than the last— and 10 assists, a vintage performance just when all the critics were certain he was washed up.
I’ll never forget the whole arena chanting his name. I’d love to forget the next two games.
3) 2012, Conference Finals vs. Thunder: A controversial choice, perhaps. But the 2011-12 season was a line of demarcation to the downward arc of Ginobili’s career. It was a lockout-shortened season and he played in only 34 games, due to various injuries. He started just seven of them and averaged just 23.3 minutes per game. His shot attempts and scoring average declined sharply (though his efficiency was never better from the field or the three-point line). Still, this year was his transition to a full-time bench role and he didn’t score over 24 points in any game during the regular season.
For a while there, it didn’t look like they’d need him to. The Spurs had a magical thing going with Kawhi Leonard looking more comfortable, youngsters Danny Green and Tiago Splitter settling into their roles and the deepest bench they ever had, with mid-season acquisitions Boris Diaw, Stephen Jackson and Patty Mills all contributing. Parker was in his prime, Duncan had discovered the fountain of youth and the team’s ball movement was out of this world. They put together 20 consecutive wins, most of them routs and half of them coming in the playoffs. There was talk of a 16-0 playoff run.
The young Thunder with Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and a sixth-man by the name of James Harden put a kibosh on all of that with two straight wins in OKC. Their athleticism started spooking the Spurs out. Splitter in particular looked unplayable against them and the youngsters were rattled. Looking for a spark, Popovich went to his ace in the hole and started Ginobili again. He played his heart out, with 34 points at 34 years old. “The Big Three” all showed up. They just didn’t get enough help.
Pro tip: It’s never a good thing when a highlight clip’s title begins with the words “valiant effort.” I’ll still never forget this game.
2) 2007, semi-finals @ Suns: Speaking of controversial, I’m not sure the Spurs were ever cast as more villainous than they were in this game. Then-commissioner David Stern suspended A’mare Stoudemire and Diaw (a Sun back then) for coming off the bench following Horry’s hip-check of Steve Nash late in a Game 4 home loss, a play which Nash, years later, sheepishly admitted to having embellished.
Suns fans were out for blood for Game 5 back in Phoenix. Even without their best scorer, Phoenix led by 16, 47-33 as the shell-shocked Spurs bumbled through the first half. You’ll find nary a highlight clip of it online, but it was Ginobili who led them back, willing to wear the black hat and using every veteran trick in the book to get to the line again and again. He scored 15 of his game-high 26 in the fourth quarter, as the Spurs overcame an eight-point deficit with 5:18 remaining to steal an 88-85 win.
Here’s a clip, for posterity’s sake, of Ginobili’s tour-de-force Game 6 back home, where he finished with 33 points, 11 rebounds and six assists in a blowout win to seal the series. Just understand that the reason he gets booed every time he touches the ball to this day in Phoenix is because of what he did in that arena in Game 5.
1) 2014, Finals vs. Heat: Okay, so I cheated. This wasn’t a six-game series. It’s still the best Manu Game 5. It will always be the best Manu Game 5. It will always be the best game, period.
I am going to miss Manu Ginobili.