San Antonio’s favorite Spur just can’t quit

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“HEY MANU, WE LOVE YOU,” the Baseline Bum seated in the section just above and behind me screamed. This wouldn’t have caught my attention had it been the second nature reaction to an emotional moment, when tensions are high and the stakes are higher. Throughout his career, Manu Ginobili has had a feel for the moment and a knack for being able to knock down big shots at the right time. When the Spurs string together a couple of buckets on the offensive end and a number of stops on the defensive and they’re looking for someone to drain that back-breaking 3-pointer, more often than not it’s Manu.

But this wasn’t that moment. This was the first quarter of a routine regular season game against the Atlanta Hawks on a Monday night. One in which Tim Duncan, not Ginobili, was the game’s highlight, posting the senior-most 20-20 game in NBA history. Not only did this public display of affection come during the first quarter, but Ginobili was at the free throw line.

Manu Ginobili has always been San Antonio’s favorite Spur. The city’s love and respect for Tim Duncan goes deep; every Spurs fan knows none of what transpired over the past 16 years happens without Duncan. They adore David Robinson for his military ties alone, say nothing of his on-court success and the grace with which he carried himself with off it. But they love Ginobili something awful. We’re talking pain in your stomach, teenage-girls-watching-the-Beatles-on-Ed-Sullivan love.

When Ginobili showed up in silver and black in 2002, he defied what we knew of Gregg Popovich’s Spurs teams. This was the height of the twin towers-era Spurs, where defense was emphasized first, second and last, and the offense consisted of dumping the ball to Tim Duncan and working off of him in the low post. Ginobili’s game didn’t fit that mold when he got to San Antonio, nor has it since.

Eleven years later and the fresh-faced, floppy-haired Argentine has a foot in his basketball grave and was a step away from retirement this past offseason.

“He’s definitely getting old. We all are, I am too,” Boris Diaw tells me. “He’s smart, he knows good footwork. Footwork usually beats speed. So he’s got good footwork.”

That footwork is the foundation for what is one of the most unorthodox players the NBA has ever seen. He plays the game as if you gave him a book on the basketball’s rules, locked him in a gym and never let him see someone else play. What Manu Ginobili does on the floor is simply his interpretation of basketball.

Ginobili’s rhythm is different than everyone else on the floor. He didn’t invent the Eurostep—or 1-2 step the move is also known—but he popularized it to a point that for a time he was synonymous with the maneuver. Ginobili throws a pass when most players would take one more dribble. He’s not afraid to thread bounce passes through opponents’ legs with frequency because it’s often the best passing angle he has. There are awkward starts and stops in his game which serve to create misdirection that only he seems to understand. He shoots off the wrong foot, with the wrong hand, on the wrong side of the basket because it’s the right play.

And the city ate it up. He was the lone native Spanish speaker on the Spurs when he joined the team in 2002. That means a lot to a city that is 63 percent Hispanic or Latino according to 2010 census data. Throw in his expect-anything style of play and you’ve got the makings of hysteria.

It took some time for Popovich to accept Ginobili’s style and for Manu to rein in his decision making just enough to survive, but the pair eventually came to a happy medium, so much so that when Ginobili signed an extension a few of years ago he made Gregg Popovich promise to stick around for the duration of that contact (no word on if the same agreement was struck when Manu signed on for another couple of seasons this offseason).

The zeal San Antonio has for Manu reached a fever pitch during Game 5 of last season’s NBA Finals when, making his first start of the season, Ginobili put up 24 points and 10 assists in a win over the Heat. Gladiatorial chants of Ma-nu, Ma-nu, Ma-nu rung from the AT&T Center crowd as its hero succeeded in what, at the time, could’ve been his last game in front of them.

Who knows if that possibility inspired Ginobili’s performance or the reaction from the crowd, but the resulting chants unique for a team that’s always sacrificed individual achievement and a fan base with full knowledge of that team-first attitude. If it was going to be Ginobili’s last game in front of them, dammit they were going to pay tribute.

Coming down from the highs of Game 5, Ginobili must’ve tripped and fell as his Finals finished with a resounding thud. In Game 6, Ginobili committed eight turnovers with three of those coming in the fourth quarter and overtime. In Game 7, he had another four turnovers, all of them in the fourth quarter.

It was a tragic ending to what could’ve been a wonderful story and it left Ginobili, a free agent, with an uncertain future to say the least. According to reports, Ginobili didn’t know if the team wanted him back and, if so, why. After meeting with RC Buford when free agency began, Manu re-signed with San Antonio for two more seasons keeping the Ginobili experience alive in the Alamo City and ensuring those two turnover-laden games in the 2013 NBA Finals wouldn’t be the last images Spurs fans had of Manu’s career.

One of the most competitive players in the league, Manu’s drive to win is underrated by many observers. Watch him closely and you’ll see the body language of a man who wants to win every play of every game, though aware of the larger goal in mind.

That competitiveness is likely what drove him to return after the disappointment lingering from the Finals and what has led him to make changes to his shot in his eleventh season. In an effort to stave off what effects aging and the wear-and-tear have wreaked on his body and coming off a season in which he played in 81 total games at the age of 35, Ginobili worked over the summer to tweak his shot.

“Well, it’s not working that well,” Ginobili joked earlier in the season, referring to his slow start to the new campaign when he shot 41 percent from the field through the first 11 games of the season.

“It’s just about getting my legs together, staying in the shot,” Ginobili says. “Don’t leave before I finish with the followthrough.”

In previous seasons, Ginobili’s body leaned away from the shot just a little too much. His head was titled back and his body followed. His feet seemed to drift every which way but down as he returned to the floor. That left plenty of his long range attempts short, especially those dribble step-backs he’s relied on as his ability to get to the rim on the regular has diminished.

Now Manu is more upright and and balanced when he shoots. His head is in a more neutral position and his legs are under him. As a result, his shooting percentages are up across the board. You’ll find fewer highlights this season of him releasing the shot and taking several steps towards the defensive end before the ball hits the rim.

Ginobili’s free throw percentage is the second-best mark of his career and even after a slow start to the year from the field, the changes in his shot were apparent at the line. Now it’s all coming together for Manu.

Since November 22, Ginobili is shooting 54 percent from the field on over eight attempts per contest. He’s also shooting a blistering 44 percent from 3-point range in those 13 games.

That uptick in shooting percentage has also opened up the rest of his game. Ginobili averaged 3.7 assists to 1.5 turnovers in the first 11 games, but since is dishing out 5.3 assists a contest, though the turnovers are up to 2.2 a game.

Ginobili’s improved ability to knock down shots on the perimeter allows him to continue to play at a high-level and maintains his status as a player Gregg Popovich can lean on. Ginobili will never be confused with a spot-up shooter, but being anything close to a threat from the 3-point arc gives Manu opportunities to attack the paint and create plays for others.

Shooting around on the AT&T Center floor about 90 minutes before the Spurs were to take on the Golden State Warriors—before flocks of adoring fans would fill the seats of the 18,000-seat arena—Ginobili went through his normal progression of shots. Spot-ups from the corners, flashing to the angles for catch-and-shoot attempts, etc, all with the goal to implement the changes made to his shot over the summer and ensure that they will be second-nature when the game is live.

After missing a long 2 from the right wing, Ginobili turns away from the basket and says something menacing to himself, loud enough that I can hear from about 10 feet away, but foreign enough that I can’t understand the words. Even in this informal, pressure-free setting in a contest between himself and recent history, Manu Ginobili can’t help but want to win.