SAN ANTONIO – Sasha Vujacic had done everything possible short of taking a tire iron to Manu Ginobili's knee. He had bounced off screens, crowded him, pushed him right and … nothing. Ginobili had already thrown in four three-pointers and now he was stepping back for another.
Vujacic stepped, too, thrusting his arms between Ginobili's, forcing the wiry guard to fade … fade … fade. Just as it looked like Ginobili's back could bend no more, he launched a moonball toward the rim.
Vujacic turned to see the shot drop through the net. Shoulders slumped, he looked toward the roof of the AT&T Center, questioning, perhaps, just what he had done to deserve this torture. Kobe Bryant grinned. He knew. The Los Angeles Lakers had helped create this monster.
"Manu's pissed," one San Antonio Spurs coach said early Sunday evening before Ginobili had taken even his first step onto the court. "That could be good for us."
The Spurs have long fed off Ginobili's fire, and he burned as bright as ever Sunday, scoring 30 points and throwing a charge through his teammates as they rolled to a 103-84 victory over the Lakers. The Spurs only trimmed Los Angeles' lead in the Western Conference finals to 2-1, but with Ginobili playing as he did Sunday? The champs aren't dead just yet.
Ginobili had simmered through the first two games. His legs were heavy, his left ankle throbbed and he was missing a fingernail on his shooting hand. He had totaled just 17 points in the two losses, but that's not what bothered him most. He expected more from himself. As the Spurs prepared to leave Los Angeles Friday night, Ginobili stared into the TV cameras and blamed himself for the two losses.
Ginobili's recovery began, not surprisingly, in a medical office. On Saturday afternoon he stuck his sore ankle in an MRI tube and waited for the results. The Spurs doctors looked at the scan and saw what they expected: The ankle had some swelling and chronic arthritis, but was structurally sound.
The news, team officials said, seemed to relax Ginobili. The arthritis is an issue, and will likely continue to be in this every-other-day series. He jammed his foot in the first game of these playoffs, but the arthritis is believed to have built up since Ginobili tried to play in the finals of the 2002 World Championships after he severely sprained the ankle the previous game. Still, even that should have told Ginobili something.
After all, hadn't he been through worse?
Ginobili also benefited, like every player does, from a couple of nights in his own bed. But Spurs coach Gregg Popovich worried as much about Ginobili's mental state as he did his physical makeup. After tough losses, Popovich often talks about "filling up the cup." Ginobili's was clearly empty.
So Popovich gave Ginobili space at Sunday morning's shootaround. He didn't ask him how he was feeling because he didn't want him thinking about it. He also shielded Ginobili from the media so he wouldn't have to answer questions about either his ankle or his struggles.
"I think he just put all that behind him," said Fabricio Oberto, Ginobili's Argentine teammate and closest friend on the Spurs. "He just played."
All that frustration? Ginobili turned it into fuel. After he hit his second consecutive three-pointer midway through the first quarter, he screamed and pumped both his fists. Ginobili continued to snarl his way through the game, again making back-to-back three-pointers in the second quarter to give the Spurs the lead for good.
Ginobili would later say he was "more me," which should permanently end any Sasha Vujacic comparisons. All season long the Spurs have sensed Ginobili playing with an edge, even an anger, they had not felt in previous years. Now he barks back at opposing players, and after Ronny Turiaf and Derek Fisher decked him with a hard foul in the second half, Ginobili picked himself up and growled.
Popovich has long said he's never coached a more competitive player, and there's a reason for that: He hasn't. In truth, only Bryant's competitiveness may exceed Ginobili's among current players, and that's why the Spurs didn't celebrate much Sunday. Bryant's four fourth-quarter three-pointers could be a sign he's only warming up.
Bryant, too, has long respected Ginobili from afar. He once called him his favorite player to watch. On Sunday, he merely called him "phenomenal." The admiration dates to Ginobili's second season. Then, Bryant came to San Antonio with Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone and Gary Payton at his side and found Tim Duncan and Tony Parker sidelined with injuries. Ginobili, totaling 33 points and 12 rebounds, somehow pushed the Spurs into double overtime before they lost.
That's why neither the Spurs, nor Bryant, were surprised by Ginobili's performance. Lakers coach Phil Jackson couldn't even fault Vujacic too much. Ginobili, he said, simply made too many "impossible shots."
"He understands what he's done in games all his life, both in Europe and over here," Popovich said. "He's got a lot of confidence in what he can do."
Ginobili's confidence has continued to grow, as well as his standing in the league.
"He's one of the best players in the world, without a doubt, but he never gets mentioned," said New York coach Mike D'Antoni, who coached against Ginobili in Italy and lost to him four times in the playoffs in Phoenix. "He didn't even make the All-Star team, which is a travesty.
"I think he exemplifies everything you want a player to be: great in the clutch; great at getting after a loose ball; great at defense; great at offense; unselfish; takes a contract for less money to make his team better.
"I don't think there is one superlative you can say that is too much about him. … In the world he is unappreciated. Maybe because he is unorthodox, whatever. I don't know. But I'll tell you what, you can't get a better player than him.
"You can debate Kobe or LeBron. Fine. But he is right there in the debate."
The difference is that Kobe never seems to tire. Popovich long ago moved Ginobili to the bench not only to spark his teammates, but also to save him. That's why these West finals don't work in his favor. Ginobili, unlike Kobe, needs his rest.
Spending another night at home with family and friends will help. And if Ginobili's cup fills again?
On Tuesday, the Spurs have a chance to make this a series.