By Jesse Blanchard
These days, the ligaments remain in a constant state of duress—forever one misstep from fraying altogether. The process that converted uninhibited imagination into kinetic energy no longer flows as freely as it once did. Even the hair, once wild and unrestrained, has long since left.
But the will…the will remains as strong as tempered steel, forged in competitive flames that burn as bright as they ever did.
Approaching 40 years old, Manu Ginobili is practically held together by elbow grease and duct tape. But with Tim Duncan retired, Tony Parker already out for the playoffs with a ruptured quadriceps tendon and Kawhi Leonard unavailable late into Game 5 with an ankle injury, Ginobili helped to keep the San Antonio Spurs from falling apart.
“Manu reached back and gave us one of his Manu performances from past years,” Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich said. “He was a stud. We actually went to him—with Kawhi off the court—to generate offense and make some things happen and he did a good job, whether it was distributing or scoring. He was big for us.”
Ginobili scored 12 points on 5-for-11 shooting to go with seven rebounds and five assists. Solid numbers, to be sure, but relatively pedestrian compared to most of the magic Ginobili has conjured up throughout his playoff career.
These days, Ginobili is counted on for his corporate knowledge and ability to keep the system running more than his production. Playing against the Houston Rockets’ smaller lineups, that’s meant knowing where to bump cutters and rotate to shooters on defense and finding seams to exploit on offense. It’s been years since the Spurs faced off against a Mike D’Antoni-coached team at its peak, but the muscle memory of more than a few epic playoff battles against those Phoenix Suns remains and each rotation and stress point is at instant recall.
“He did all of the little things that we needed him to do,” Danny Green said. “We’re going to continue to need that from him, especially since we don’t know what’s going to happen with Kawhi.”
Still, what makes Ginobili so special is his ability to repeatedly capture lightning in a bottle. To step into a moment and, even now, in his diminished state, make it his.
With less than 10 seconds remaining in overtime and the Spurs clinging to a three-point lead, Ginobili found himself switched onto James Harden, a funhouse mirror version of his former self.
Ginobili met Harden’s first rip through move with his chest, hands out and showing as the Spurs have done all series. Harden jabbed hard to his left and went right, gaining separation. But Manu, always one to take matters into his own hands, recovered, finding the perfect angle to block Harden from behind and seal the victory.
— NBA TV (@NBATV) May 10, 2017
As always, Ginobili’s moment was a result of intelligence meeting flair and bravado, calculating the angles and striking without a moment’s hesitation.
“I know where his shot releases from, and he went by me,” Ginobili said [per ESPN]. “So I tried to bother him as much as I could, and I saw I found myself very close to the ball. So I went for it. But very risky; it was a risky play. But it was also risky to let him shoot. So I took my chances.”
The quote does well to sum up Ginobili’s career. He’s a gambler who knows all the angles, constantly pushing the boundaries and, once on the event horizon, figures, why not?
Sometimes, it gets him in trouble. The infamous foul on Dirk Nowitzki will forever be a moment of anguish, as will the crucial turnovers in the 2013 NBA Finals.
But that ability to see everything and still be open to exploring new possibilities is what makes Ginobili so dangerous, even now. And the above quote is no different from the following quote, given after the Spurs won the 2014 championship and Ginobili dunked on Chris Bosh:
“But in the heat of the battle, with the adrenaline pumping and the situation…really, I don’t know what happened,” Ginobili said. “I went hard and once I was in the air, I felt like I had a shot and I tried.”
Ginobili had another moment like that last night, knifing down the middle of the lane and throwing down the most surprising dunk these playoffs:
This dunk legit made me clap in my seat. Had no idea Ginobili!!!!!!! could go righty on 'em pic.twitter.com/0ykn9PMViv
— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) May 10, 2017
“I don’t know if you saw that wrong-foot, right-handed dunk, but that’s one for the record books right there,” teammate Danny Green said. “From that moment on, I knew he was locked in. I knew he was going to give us some good energy. Manu is the type of guy where, he doesn’t care about his points, assists or numbers. He just wanted to win the game. He did a great job, even at the end, blocking Harden on that 3-pointer. Who knows what would have happened if he had gotten that shot off?”
Ginobili, who pays little attention to record books but has written some of the greatest moments in the NBA’s history books, was less impressed with what many were calling a vintage performance.
“I don’t feel like I had a huge game. I felt better than the previous ones, that’s for sure,” Ginobili said, following it up with a joke. “I guess the standards are a little lower than before.”
Of course, Manu can’t carry a team as he once did. In order for the block to be possible, James Harden had to be dragged down to Ginobili’s level. The game had to become less a battle of talent and athleticism and more a contest of wills. To that end, Ginobili is as indebted to his teammates as they are to him.
Harden posted a triple-double with 33 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, but did most of the damage in the first half, where he scored 23 points (on 8-for-13 shooting) with eight rebounds and five assists to three turnovers.
But the Rockets’ star faded late, shooting just 3-for-8 for 10 points, four assists and three turnovers after halftime. Worse than his production was his energy, as the Rockets’ pace slowed to a crawl, never allowing itself to reach escape velocity even as Leonard watched helplessly from the bench.
Credit the Spurs’ depth and Popovich’s trust in it. David Lee and Kyle Anderson bought the Spurs time in the first half with a few minutes. Even if both provided some negative minutes, basketball isn’t played on a spreadsheet where minutes and shots can just be redistributed to more efficient options with no consequences.
Every minute has a human toll, and four Rockets played more than 40 minutes while the Spurs only had two: LaMarcus Aldridge and Danny Green.
A seven-game series is a marathon, not a sprint, and the Spurs are working diligently to spring their traps. They’ve worked to try and disconnect Harden from his shooters, disrupting the rhythm and flow of the Rockets’ offense. It’s a tricky line to balance, given how Harden so easily exploits any seams.
They’ve also stayed committed to a steady feed in the post to Aldridge and Pau Gasol with Harden defending, getting little in the way of production, but putting collisions on Harden’s legs.
Aldridge was inefficient (7-for-21 shooting) but getting the Spurs volume with nine offensive rebounds (14 overall), scoring 18 points in a game where even inefficient counting stats added up in the long run.
Leonard, before going out, put in 22 points and 15 rebounds, carrying the Spurs along with Patty Mills (20 points, five 3-pointers for the game) in the first half.
That made a difference in the second half as the Spurs threw several defenders at Harden; notably Jonathon Simmons. Simmons is one of the few quality athletes the Spurs have, and his ability to get downhill gives the Spurs some edge. More importantly, the strength to withstand Harden’s initial bump, quickness to keep in front and ability to recover are godsends for a team that relies almost exclusively on execution.
Several times, Simmons was able to poke at Harden’s dribble from behind, knocking the ball loose and creating points when San Antonio was starving for them. His anticipation has improved over the year, to the point where he was able to step in and draw charges, including a crucial one late on Harden.
He often worked in tandem with Danny Green, switching expertly on and off Harden without forcing the Spurs into a tough decision—something helped by Harden’s lackadaisical pace in the clutch.
Green was crucial, hitting big 3-pointers and a driving and-one layup; doing as all Spurs seem to do by just finding a way to get the job done.
All of those factors created the opportunities for Ginobili to exploit, working along the periphery for a big 3-pointer and a driving lefty layup—gathering the ball with one hand and stretching out for a quick layup, disrupting the timing of Clint Capela, who’d done a masterful job of protecting the rim up to that point.
In the end, with both teams too exhausted to leverage physical advantages, it came down to a contest of wills and smarts.
Ginobili is no longer capable of being everywhere at once, but even at 39 years old, he always seems to have one more night of being exactly where he needs to be.