How Manu Ginobili once again gave the Spurs hope

SAN ANTONIO – Fluorescent-green-colored rope formed a barricade around the AT&T Center court, where only a few minutes earlier the San Antonio Spurs showed that they could win a gutty, overtime postseason game – with their MVP candidate sidelined – by relying on a collection of former NBA D-Leaguers and second-round picks, an off-target former All-Star and a nearly 40-year-old future Hall of Famer who continues to find ways to amaze.

Inside that protected space, the floor belonged to 6-year-old twins Dante and Nicola Ginobili, who were engaged in a game of one-on-one wearing personalized No. 20 jerseys with their first names on the back. While they tossed up hopeless shots with a mini-basketball and raced each other for rebounds, their 3-year-old little brother, Luca, ran around in circles, dipped under the ropes and waved a plastic sword. The boundless energy of the Ginobili boys was enviable – and somewhat exhausting for those in charge of supervising them. But the wonder Tuesday night was how their father was still able to summon enough from his remaining energy reserves to throw down a rare right-handed dunk, record the game-saving block and inspire the Spurs to a 110-107 West semifinal victory that ensured – regardless of what happens in Game 6 – he has not played his final game in this building.

Manu Ginobili blocks James Harden on the last play of the game Tuesday night. (AP)
Manu Ginobili blocks James Harden on the last play of the game Tuesday night. (AP)

“It’s hard not to be excited and full of adrenaline, because it’s a Game 5. You’re thrilled to be here. We’re also lucky to be here because a lot of guys are watching on TV. If you have the opportunity, then you bring everything you have,” Manu Ginobili said after a game in which he didn’t exactly turn back the grandfather clock but reminded everyone that it’s still functional.

Ginobili hasn’t declared that this is his final season, stating only that he will keep playing as long as the game remains fun. At 39, Ginobili won’t have many more opportunities to give the Spurs what Patty Mills likes to refer to as “grandpa juice.” But with Kawhi Leonard hobbled with an ankle injury and Tony Parker already done for the season because of knee surgery, the Spurs needed more from an aging, 15-year veteran who has been delivering heroic moments for the franchise ever since he was a mop-haired daredevil who infuriated coach Gregg Popovich. Popovich eventually decided to admire the madness and continues to be rewarded in ways both personal and professional.

When Tim Duncan decided to call it a career last summer, Ginobili flirted with the possibility of leaving the Spurs for a huge golden parachute and a reunion with former assistant Brett Brown in Philadelphia. Believing that losing two true Spurs in the same offseason would’ve been “death by a thousand cuts,” Popovich had to nearly triple his intended salary offer to avoid the unimaginable and retain Ginobili.

“From a cultural standpoint, from a value standpoint, to think of going forward in life without Tim and Manu would’ve been devastating to a group,” Spurs general manager R.C. Buford told The Vertical after his team took a 3-2 series lead against the Rockets. “It will be devastating to a group. It is going to happen. But for it to happen at the same time, it would’ve been a great challenge for all of us.

“I know how much Pop misses Tim when he walks in the gym every day. That would’ve been exaggerated if Manu had not been there with us,” Buford continued. “There are too many nights like [Tuesday] where he carries us forward and teaches the next generation the importance of competitiveness, the importance of sacrifice – and loving the game. That’s the thing I think is most obvious.”

The Spurs didn’t lean much on Ginobili’s on-court contributions in the regular season, as he averaged a career-low 7.5 points. And he didn’t have much to offer in the first four games of this postseason, going scoreless and missing all 15 of his field-goal attempts until he had 10 points in a pivotal Game 5 win over the Memphis Grizzlies. Ginobili was again relatively quiet through the first four games against the Rockets until he scored 12 points in another Game 5 performance that shuttered those who questioned Popovich’s unrelenting commitment to the game’s second-oldest player this season. Popovich has learned: Ginobili might not always be there when you want him, but he is always there when you need him.

That “very unexpected” first-half driving dunk – his third of the season and first since December – even caught Ginobili by surprise. That off-balance, winding shotput layup that wound up forcing overtime appeared to catch Houston off-guard. And James Harden clearly didn’t expect a man who was drafted when Harden was just 10 to creep from behind to cleanly slap his potential tying 3-pointer into dust at the buzzer. Ginobili called the blocked shot “a very risky play” but that seems to sum up what made him great for his entire career.

“Manu reached back and gave us one of his Manu performances from past years,” Popovich said. “He was a stud.”

Ginobili was somewhat offended by the assessment because he knows that he is graded on an old-man curve these days, that a truly vintage performance would’ve been more like one of those monster games from championship runs in 2005 or 2007, not some unexpected highlights in his career twilight. “I don’t feel like I had a huge game. But I guess the standards are a little lower,” Ginobili said with a laugh.

The Spurs haven’t remained relevant for two decades and withstood multiple transfers of power in hierarchy without players raising the standards with their ability to sacrifice and maintain traditions. Ginobili has embraced what it meant to be a Spur, absorbed the wisdom passed down from David Robinson and Duncan, and in turn has done the same with the dozens who have spent time with the organization through the years. He welcomed a sixth-man role when he was good enough to dominate frontline talent, accepted the Leonard takeover and a diminished role, and subsidized the Spurs’ team-building efforts by taking below-market deals.

For anyone wondering how the Spurs were able to slow down the high-octane Rockets for a third time while Leonard was stuck on the bench with injuries to his left leg and right ankle; how Danny Green was able to handle the scoring burden in crunch time; and how Jonathon Simmons was as able to fluster Harden, an MVP candidate, it’s because of the example set by players like Ginobili, who embody Popovich’s get-over-yourself mantra and understand that the win is more important than how the game is won.

The Spurs won’t be able to finish off the Rockets unless Leonard is able return and play at a level that made him an MVP candidate. Ginobili acknowledged Leonard’s immense burden as the team’s go-to guy, primary playmaker and designated lock-down defender. But the three-in-one was absent, along with Parker, in the Spurs’ first post-Duncan playoff run. The Argentine legend remains, reminding his team after a deflating loss of the importance of approaching Game 5 with Game 7 intensity.

San Antonio avoided a disaster last summer by retaining Ginobili and he helped the team avoid the stress of heading into Houston facing elimination. Now, the Spurs have some hope heading into Game 6, with Leonard declaring himself available and Ginobili’s eighth conference finals trip well within his grasp.

Buford has seen better performances from Ginobili, been dazzled by his brilliance too many times to count. But he also wouldn’t know what else to expect from a true Spur. “His preparation doesn’t change. His intensity doesn’t change. His accountability that he holds himself, doesn’t change,” Buford told The Vertical. “But I’m sure these nights mean a great deal to him.”

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