The fun and frustration of catching a pass from Manu Ginobili
It wasn’t the part of the play everyone would remember, but it was out of the ordinary nonetheless. Matt Bonner crashed the offensive boards. Standing out near the top of the key in what ended up being a big Spurs win over the Lakers on a late-season Friday night in April 2012, Bonner, never a beast on the boards, saw an open lane to the hoop. His defender rotated over to contest a Manu Ginobili 3-point attempt, so Bonner attacked the glass.
Long shots equal long rebounds and as Ginobili’s 3 caromed off the back of the rim and out to the perimeter, drawing plenty of bodies with it, Bonner figured what the hell, I’ll hang out here by the rim for a moment.
Like an offside trap in soccer, the two Laker defenders closest to Bonner pushed forward and left him alone under the hoop. Only, there’s no offsides in basketball. Bonner threw up his arms briefly to signal his availability for a pass. Not a moment later, the ball was in Bonner’s mitts. Like trying to transfer a hot dish from the microwave to the counter, hurry but don’t rush, Bonner quickly put the ball in.
“He threw like a side hand cricket pitch from like half court,” Bonner said. “You know, whizzed it right by four guys’ faces and by the grace of God I caught it and laid it in.”
Ginobili found Bonner with a picture-perfect pass that was as unorthodox as it was beautiful. NBA players throw touch passes all the time, but not high-speed rockets with one hand from 40 feet away.
There may be no player in league history who can simultaneously make his teammates’ jobs easier and more difficult than Manu Ginobili. How else can you describe it when Ginobili puts a ball in the perfect spot for a teammate to get a layup when that fellow Spur has no idea a pass is coming?
That’s just the burden you bear when taking the floor with Manu Ginobili. The Argentine made a name for himself in the league by delighting fans, teammates and opponents with his ball control exploits. He’s done it in trivial regular season games and those at the league’s biggest stage, the NBA Finals. No one is safe from an out-of-nowhere pass from Ginobili.
“When you play with Manu, you just get used to him making crazy passes where you think there’s no way A) he sees you and B) he can get the ball through,” the Red Mamba/Rocket said, calling the frozen rope he caught from Ginobili in 2012 against the Lakers one of the few times he made SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays that didn’t involve getting dunked on.
Even watching highlights of Manu’s passes through the years, highlights I’ve seen over and over again, I don’t think the ball is going to make to Ginobili’s intended target. But it does.
Back when the Spurs were their grind-it-out, defense-first selves of the early-to-mid 2000s, Ginobili’s skillset was a breath of fresh air in a smog-filled valley. The Spurs won plenty, mind you, but the aesthetics weren’t there. Then this herky-jerky southpaw came to town and threw everything we knew about Gregg Popovich’s Spurs into disarray.
Kawhi Leonard has only been playing with Ginobili for a couple of seasons, but he thinks he’s got Ginobili figured out.
“He’s not going to just throw the perfect chest pass if he can throw it behind his back or over his head to get it to you perfectly, you just have to be ready for that,” Leonard said.
So how do you catch what you can’t see coming?
“I always expecting a pass from him, so I got that in my mind as soon as I got here,” Tiago Splitter announced. “I had a player like that [in Spain], [Pablo] Prigioni, who played like that.
“He always is trying to pass you, even when you’re just a little bit open.”
Prigioni also happens to be one of Ginobili’s teammates on the Argentine national team.
Readiness, it seems, is the key. When you step on the floor and the ball is in play, you’re open. No matter how inconsequential your position on the floor is or how well-scouted the opponent might have the current play, if Manu Ginobili thinks he can get the ball to you in a position to score, by God he’s going to do it.
“When he has the ball, just know that anything can happen. Hopefully good, sometimes bad, but you know that if you’re open he’s going to find you,” Danny Green said. “So you just be ready at all times and be ready to shoot or make a play.”
And fortunately for anyone who takes the floor with Ginobili, that’s the hardest part. Being ready and aware is the key. Once his teammate has located the ball and somehow managed to keep possession, chances are he’ll find himself with the opportunity to convert an easy shot.
Probably no play in Manu Ginobili’s catalog of highlights exemplifies this give-and-take like what occurred in a December win over the Minnesota Timberwolves back in 2009. Late in the contest, a blowout for the Spurs, Ginobili found a rookie DeJuan Blair in transition with a falling-out-of-bounds, behind-the-back pass aimed right for Blair’s head. [Note: This is also the game when Graydon got Popped. Good times.]
It was a play you wouldn’t expect anyone else in the league to pull off or, hell, even attempt, but once Blair had his hands on the pass that shouldn’t have made its arrival he found himself in front of the rim with no one in position to contest.
As Ginobili’s career winds down and body deteriorates, we’re left wondering what he still has in the tank, especially in the face of yet another long season (in length, mind you, not feeling) in San Antonio.
The production may not be there from night to night, but you can expect that the unexpected will always be possible with Manu. For his fellow Spurs, that’s both a good thing and a bad one.