Manu Ginobili's OT block saved Game 5, and maybe the Spurs' season

Dan Devine
Manu Ginobili blocks James Harden's shot, sealing Game 5 for the Spurs. (AP)
Manu Ginobili blocks James Harden’s shot, sealing Game 5 for the Spurs. (AP)

After an 0-for-the-first-four-games start to the opening round, with the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies tied at two games apiece, Manu Ginobili turned in a strong performance in Game 5. He scored 10 points and brought what teammate Patty Mills called “the grandpa juice” with his hustle and tenacity to help lead San Antonio to a win that set them up to advance to Round 2.

The Spurs found themselves in a similar situation against the Houston Rockets on Tuesday. A more dire one, in fact, with point guard Tony Parker out for the rest of the season, MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard sidelined late by a nasty ankle injury, and the Rockets repeatedly threatening to deliver the knockout blow that would give them their second road win of the series.

But with San Antonio clinging to a three-point lead in the dying seconds of overtime in a pivotal Game 5, the 39-year-old Argentine legend was able to summon up just enough juice to push the Spurs over the finish line one more time.

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After the Rockets controlled a jump ball between Mills and Rockets guard Eric Gordon with 9.3 seconds left in overtime, Ginobili switched onto James Harden in the closing seconds. He recovered after the Rockets superstar beat him off the dribble, and swatted the ball out of Harden’s hands before he could unleash a potential game-tying shot attempt with less than a second remaining in OT. No shot. No score. No tie. Spurs win, 110-107, and take a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series.

“I didn’t think about anything,” Ginobili told reporters after the game, according to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle. “I know where his shot releases from and he went by me. 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.”

Harden scored a game-high 33 points on 11-for-24 shooting with 10 rebounds and 10 assists (against nine turnovers) — his second career postseason triple-double — for the Rockets, who will play to survive in Thursday’s Game 6 in Houston, hoping to force a winner-take-all Game 7 on Sunday. The Spurs will play for the right to spend their Sunday in Oakland, facing the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.

Mills, inserted into Parker’s place in the starting lineup over Game 4 starter Dejounte Murray, added 20 points (7-for-16 from the field, 5-for-12 from 3-point range) with four assists in a team-high 43 minutes. LaMarcus Aldridge put up loud numbers — 18 points, 14 rebounds, nine on the offensive glass — but did so fairly quietly, missing 14 of his 21 shot attempts despite getting plenty of opportunities to post up smaller defenders as the Rockets leaned hard on small-ball lineups. (Harden, a stouter post defender than you might expect, deserves some credit there.)

With Leonard limited and Aldridge struggling, San Antonio needed other contributions. Swingman Jonathon Simmons scored 12 points and snagged three steals, including two in overtime, when he picked up the primary defensive assignment on Harden in Leonard’s absence.

Danny Green battled through some early-game defensive miscues and inconsistency to come up huge late, scoring San Antonio’s final seven points. And then there was Ginobili, damn near 40, the last man standing from the halcyon days of the Spurs’ championship runs, who made the right plays at the right times — the explosion for the rare righty dunk late in the second quarter, the game-tying layup late in regulation, the extra passes that set up both of Green’s go-ahead buckets in the final 56 seconds of OT — to remind us that, years later, he can still be a game-changer.

“Manu, you know, reached back and gave us one of his Manu performances from past years,” Popovich said during his post-game press conference. “He was a stud. We actually went to him with Kawhi off the court, to generate some offense, to make some things happen, and he did a good job, whether it was distributing it or scoring. He was big for us.”

Ginobili finished with 12 points, seven rebounds, five assists and, of course, that game-saving block in 31 1/2 minutes off the bench. He might not have been super impressed with that himself …

… but it sure felt like he had more.

Ginobili’s timely rejection capped a hard-fought, tense game that began as a fast-paced offensive slugfest before bogging down late. Both teams shot 36 percent from the field after halftime, as the two teams grew fatigued and began to feel the absence of key contributors, playing as if each possession determined victory or defeat in more than just this game.

The Spurs came out hot, making seven of their first 11 shots to take control early. San Antonio led 32-29 after one quarter despite a scintillating start by Harden, who worked free of Kawhi’s clutches by involving Leonard’s teammates (notably LaMarcus Aldridge and David Lee) in the pick-and-roll and punishing the resultant switches to score 15 points with three assists in the opening frame.

The Spurs jumped ahead despite quiet starts from stars Leonard and Aldridge thanks in part to Mills, who opened the first postseason start of his NBA career by knocking down three of his first four shots, including a pair of 3-pointers. But by going small with Gordon in the starting lineup and Ryan Anderson moved to the bench to serve as a backup center to Clint Capela, the Rockets were able to get to their preferred pace and gleefully bomb away.

Houston shot 6-for-12 from deep in the first 12 minutes, and took 48 3-point attempts for the game. That’s just the 19th time since the advent of the 3-point shot that a team has taken that many; 18 have come in the last two seasons, and the Rockets are responsible for 14 of them.

The pace-and-space approach paid off in the second quarter, as Harden, Anderson and point guard Patrick Beverley cranked up their play …

… to put Houston on top, 60-58, at halftime, despite going just seven-deep in the absence of the injured Nene.

With the Spurs trying their best to stay at home on Houston’s shooters, and the Rockets sending different screeners from different angles to catch San Antonio’s defenders off-balance, Harden found himself facing mismatch after mismatch. He got plenty of chances to put the ball on the deck and get to the rim, and he feasted, scoring 23 points on 8-for-13 shooting in the first half.

The Spurs, meanwhile, felt like they were on borrowed time, needing the scoring of Mills and Simmons to weather 7-for-18 shooting from Leonard and Aldridge. They couldn’t outrebound Houston despite the Rockets staying small. They only had one turnover at half, and they were still trailing.

With Harden going off, the Spurs needed their top gun to start firing. Leonard never quite looked comfortable on Tuesday, leaving shots short and throwing passes off-target, but he tried in the third quarter to will himself and his team through the Rockets’ pressure:

Midway through the third, though, disaster struck. Leonard took an errant step as the Spurs looked to transition from defense to offense following a Harden turnover. His left foot landed on Harden’s shoe, and he rolled the ankle badly, instantly coming up limping and hobbling off the court:

Leonard would stay in for the balance of the third, but would play just under six minutes the rest of the way, finishing with 22 points on 8-for-21 shooting with 15 rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocks in 38 minutes.

Things looked bleak for a Spurs team suddenly starved for playmaking. But the Rockets just couldn’t seize control.

Harden seemed to get exhausted after a sensational first half, going just 3-for-11 from the field with six turnovers after halftime as he struggled to break free of Leonard, Simmons, Mills, Green and every other defender the Spurs threw at him. Houston kept firing, shooting 15 3-pointers in the third quarter, but made only five, and shot just 37 percent overall in the period.

By missing multiple wide-open looks that might have broken the game open, and by committing five turnovers that led to seven Spurs points, the Rockets allowed the Spurs to not only stay close, but to take an 86-85 lead heading into the third quarter on a last-second 3-pointer by Green:

San Antonio pushed the lead to 91-87 on an Aldridge jumper with 9:55 to go in regulation … and then, the Spurs offense went into the deep freeze, missing 12 straight shots. Luckily for Pop’s crew, the Rockets couldn’t get much going either:

By the time Aldridge ended a nearly six-minute drought with a putback layup, the Spurs were only down 94-93.

The two teams traded runs, entering the final minute knotted at 99. Harden drew a foul on Mills, earning two free throws. Ginobili answered with a tough driving layup around around Capela to tie the game at 101 with 34.5 seconds left.

With the game tied, everybody knew the ball was going to go to Harden; with Leonard compromised by the ankle injury, though, the Spurs needed someone else to step in and defend. Enter Simmons, who stayed with Harden from the catch through every step of his late-game isolation.

As good as Simmons’ defense was, though, Harden scuttled the possession. First, the MVP candidate burned a chance to fire a quick shot for a 2-for-1 opportunity with 34.5 on the clock. Then, he declined Trevor Ariza’s screen, and the chance to force a switch that would allow him to go head-up with Aldridge, whom he’d torched multiple times earlier in the night. Finally, he dribbled until he had less than four seconds on the shot clock to make something happen … and he couldn’t.

“I’ve been waiting for this my whole life, not just this season,” Simmons said after the game, according to Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News. “I’ve been waiting for years.”

Harden’s offensive foul gave San Antonio a chance to win it in regulation. But the Spurs, paragons of execution and Playing The Right Way, botched their last play, too:

Judging by how furious Popovich was after the play, it looked like Pau Gasol missed the call to re-screen for Mills, who couldn’t create enough separation to get a shot off against Harden’s defense until after the final buzzer had sounded. He banked in a 3, but it came too late to count, and we were headed to OT tied at 101.

Neither Houston nor San Antonio could buy a bucket through the first three minutes of overtime, until Beverley broke the seal with a corner 3 created by a Harden drive-and-kick to put Houston up 104-101 with two minutes left. The Spurs trailed by one entering the final minute, and that’s when business picked up:

After Green and Anderson traded triples, Green showed a rare bit of off-the-dribble playmaking burst, driving around Harden for a lefty layup plus a foul to give San Antonio a 109-107 edge. On the ensuing possession, a smart alignment by Pop — cross-matching Aldridge on Beverley so he could hide his lumbering big man in the corner while having Green guard Ariza, Harden’s primary screener, allowing Green and Simmons to switch the Harden pick-and-roll — helped stifle Houston’s play, leading to a Gordon 3 that went awry.

Green rebounded the miss, but split his pair of freebies, keeping the score at 110-107 and leaving the door open for Houston to tie. Manu slammed it shut with one fell swat, drawing the Spurs within one win of the conference finals, and putting the Rockets on the brink of elimination.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!