When Manu Ginobili’s illustrious, Hall-of-Fame NBA career comes to an end, perhaps as soon as next Thursday, he will have a career as a high school physics teacher waiting for him if he wants it.
I mean, who could demonstrate the laws of motion better than a player who constantly bends space and time with fathomless passes? And during his off period Manu could swing on down to room 122 to show those Geometry students a thing or two about mastering angles and trajectory.
Or perhaps Ginobili would be better off as an optometrist, or, better yet, a therapist, so he could help others see the things that aren’t in plain sight; that three-point shooter raising from the corner to the wing on the weakside or that annoying habit you have when you eat dinner that really bothers your spouse.
Or maybe Manu will seek out a career as an artist; after all, he’s illustrated countless masterpieces on the 94-by-50 foot hardwood canvas that the Spurs have provided him with.
Ginobili’s adaptable and resourceful personality will present him with many new vocations to pursue once he’s done with basketball, but no profession would be more apt than a career in theater.
Forget the delightful aesthetics of Manu’s game that make him a treasure to watch, it’s his flair for the dramatic and his infatuation with the big stage that suit him to act scene-by-scene as well as he plays quarter-by-quarter. Of course, it’s hard to tell how compelling Ginobili’s performances would be without Gregg Popovich acting as the screenwriter, the mercurial coach’s casting call filling the arena with anticipation on Sunday night. But all that matters is that those two combined for another classic in Game 5, and now the Spurs are one win away from another Hollywood ending.
It all started with Popovich offering a buoyant “Maybe” when he was asked if his starting lineup would stay the same for Game 5. At first, I thought this meant that Gary Neal, who replaced Tiago Splitter just 47 seconds after the tip in Game 4, would be inserted into the starting line-up to match Miami’s smallball attack. But as the game crept closer, there was more and more chatter around the AT&T Center that it would be Ginobili getting the start and not Neal.
Starting Ginobili has been Pop’s trump card over the past two seasons. When Oklahoma City came back to tie the 2012 Western Conference Finals, Pop started Ginobili in Games 5 and 6. Though the Spurs lost both of those games, Manu played extremely well and helped the team match the Thunder’s production, at least until they brought their own Manu into the game. With Miami going small and winning Game 4, Popovich saw Sunday night’s game as an opportunity not only to even the playing field when it came to floor spacing, but also get Ginobili going early in the game.
Once I heard Ginobili would start, I knew exactly how Game 5 was going to play out. After playing four of the worst games of his playoff career, a dejected Ginobili was injected into the starting lineup, and he heard a thunderous “Manu” chant when his name was announced last amongst the Spurs starters. For the past two days everyone had been wondering when vintage Manu would make an appearance, and it didn’t take long for him answer the call.
“I think that first shot was huge, because that was not even a play for him,” Tony Parker said.
No, it was not. The first play call of the game for the Spurs was a down screen for Tony Parker on the left block after which he would spring to the left wing and flow into a side pick-and-roll with Tim Duncan. But Ginobili was handling up high, and he decided that Parker wasn’t quite open enough on his cut, waving him off before moving into his own pick-and-roll with Duncan. The Heat switched the pick-and-roll, putting Chris Bosh on Ginobili. Manu strung out his dribble for a second or two before stepping back, creating an inch of space before rising up and launching a long jumper over Bosh. Money.
San Antonio’s next play was also not meant to have Ginobili decide the outcome, but Danny Green snuck into the paint on a backcut and Manu riffled a pass to him for the easy lay-up. The next time up the floor the call was a straight post-up for Tim Duncan on the left block, but with Bosh overplaying him and the help defense too far away, Duncan popped his eyes out, his way of telling of Manu to throw him the ball, and once again, Ginobili delivered a picture perfect pass, allowing Duncan to throw one down comfortably. On the next possession, another Duncan post-up was called, this time on the right block; Miami’s defense succeeded in preventing the entry pass on this try, but the Spurs reversed the ball, eventually finding Ginobili on the left wing, where he had an angle on Mike Miller and drove to the free throw line, drawing the foul.
If you’re scoring at home: the Spurs scored eight points on their first four possessions, with each point coming as a direct result of Ginobili’s work. Later in the first, Ginobili would add a three-point shot to his total. Ginobili wouldn’t be heavily involved in the action again as a scorer until later in the game, a sign of his mortality, but his ability to control the game showed once again in the final minutes of the the third quarter. With the Heat down just four, Manu delivered another spurt that took the Spurs to another level.
To get things started with 2:21 left in the period, Ginobili drives baseline past Ray Allen, floating it in with his left hand, plus the foul. It is now when the fans decide to indulge in another “Manu! Manu! Manu!” chant as he steps to the free throw line. Ginobili responds by taking it to the Heat in semi-transition on the next play, crossing over, leaning into Norris Cole and flipping in another close range shot. Then, on what seems to be a lost possession, Gary Neal kicks it to a stagnant Ginobili in the corner, hands on his knees as he catches his breath. Manu catches, takes one step inside the arc and tosses it to Splitter on the roll for the wide open lay-up.
Off a Heat turnover, Ginobili operates a high screen-and-roll with Splitter masterfully, toying with the defense by the rejecting the screen, twirling around, and then rejecting it again, finding himself wide open from deep. It doesn’t fall. Looking to redeem himself, Ginobili calls an isolation for himself to end the quarter, driving hard to his right on Cole before floating one off the glass as Udonis Haslem flies over to help. It goes.
After struggling to fit in during the first four games of this series, Ginobili played Game 5 about as perfectly as he could have. He finally found the perfect balance between being aggressive and making all of the right plays out of pick-and-rolls and on isolations. It’s a more difficult transition than you’d think, especially for someone who has too much pride to eagerly admit he’s not his old self, but those problems were all solved in Game 5. Manu scored 24 points on 8-of-14 shooting while dishing out 10 critical and marvelous assists and posting a game high +19, expertly shifting from aggressive scorer mode into selfless teammate mode, putting on whichever cape he sensed his team needed him to wear at a given time. With the Manu tile finally in place, the Spurs big three finally hummed in unison, with Parker putting on a teardrop show and carving up Miami’s defense while Duncan notched his umpteenth “quiet” double-double with stellar defensive play in the paint.
For a series that has been so wildly unpredictable, you could see this Ginobili performance from a mile away. Ginobili may have been doubted by outsiders, but his teammates and his coach never lost faith in him, and the decision to start Manu and to put him front and center in their last game of the season in front of the home crowd really got him going.
“I needed it,” Ginobili said. “I was having a tough time scoring, and I needed to feel like the game was coming to me, and (tonight) I was able to attack the rim, get to the free‑throw line, and make a couple of shots.”
“It felt great when I heard (the Manu chants),” Ginobili continued. “To feel that I really helped the team to get that 20‑point lead, it was a much‑needed moment in the series. I was glad to see it happen.”
During the break between the third and fourth quarter, the crowd starts up another “Manu! Manu! Manu!” chant, this one lasting about a full minute. On the first possession of the fourth, a clearly exuberant Ginobili calls for a screen from Splitter, using it as a decoy to set up his next move. As Splitter arrives, Manu sprints from the top of the key to the left wing, stepping back and launching an awkard fadeaway three over Mario Chalmers. It’s an airball.
This is the Manu Ginobili we all know and love; you put up with the blunders — the errant shots, the devastating fouls, the head-scratching passes — because when it works — the no-look dishes, the pick pocket steals, the sweet touch from deep, the mind-numbing creativity — there’s nothing more pleasant, nothing so slick. And Manu may have made up for a lifetime of blunders in Game 5.
Because, with one more win, the Spurs will be NBA Champions once again.