The elevation of Manu Ginobili
When Manu Ginobili teetered on the edge of retirement last summer, the San Antonio Spurs were in danger of losing not only an iconic player in franchise history, but one of the few players in today’s NBA who is widely-accepted as one to raise their level of performance as the stakes get higher. Across the board Ginobili’s numbers improve after game number 82, which made the way last season’s NBA Finals ended, with Ginobili committing 12 turnovers in Games 6 and 7, so strange.
Ginobili has never been confused with someone who treats the basketball like a set of nuclear launch codes. You don’t take the risks that Manu does on a consistent basis without racking up your fair share of giveaways. When Stephen Jackson was with the Spurs last season and Manu’s two young twins were hanging around the locker room after one game, someone asked Jack about Manu’s young boys someday making the league. “Man, that’s a lot of turnovers,” was Jack’s succinct response. But the disappointment with which Ginobili’s season ended last summer was more of a fall from grace than the way most of his 11 NBA campaigns had ended.
After coming back for another go-round, Gregg Popovich protected Ginobili during the season. Pop rested Manu on back-to-backs; kept his minutes to 22.8 a game, Ginobili’s lowest since his rookie season; and took no chances anytime the 36-year-old tweaked a muscle. Manu averaged 12.3 points, 4.3 assists, 3 rebounds and 1 steal a game in that limited time and injected himself into the yet-to-be-awarded 6th Man of the Year race, acting as the much needed playmaker off San Antonio’s bench.
“Well, he really took it to heart, because he wasn’t whole in the Finals,” Popovich said before Game 1 of San Antonio’s series with Dallas. “That’s why he didn’t play overseas and he just lifted all summer and let his body recover and got stronger.
“It’s helped him a great deal so he’s whole going into the playoffs this year. He wanted to do what he needed to do to be ready for his team and he did it.”
With the regular season in the rearview, the kid gloves are off. Pop has unleashed Ginobili and allowed the Argentine to play the game that he was meant to play.
Manu is handling the ball high out on the floor and attacking pick-and-rolls with the same voracity we saw in his prime. The herky-jerky, 1-2 step he made famous is in mint condition and his touch around the basket is as deft as ever.
“It’s one of the reasons we manage minutes [in the regular season], so when you need somebody to extend [their minutes] now, they’ve got the energy to do it,” Popovich said. “You want your best players on the court as much as you can have them there and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Ginobili is leading the Spurs with 19.8 points a game in the first round and adding 4.3 assists, 4 rebounds and 1.5 steals in just under 29 minutes a contest. He is far and away San Antonio’s best offensive player in this series and, with Danny Green and Marco Belinelli complete no-shows (the pair is combining to average just over six points per game in this series), he’s picking up the slack for the rest of the shooting guards on the roster. San Antonio is 19 points worse per 100 possessions when Ginobili is off the floor in the first round than when he’s on.
In Game 4, with Tony Parker limited by a sprained ankle in the second quarter that has left him day-to-day, Ginobili led both teams in scoring with 23 points and got to the free throw line 11 times. As Ginobili has aged, that’s been one of the biggest parts of his game to fall off, his ability to get to the line. That reckless style of his that earns those foul shots, fun as it may be to watch, isn’t sustainable in the long haul so he’s had to curtail it during the regular season. Like his minutes per game, Ginobili’s free throw attempts per contest in the regular season were the lowest since his rookie season.
The Spurs need this version of Ginobili, not just for the rest of this series against Dallas, but for the foreseeable future, assuming that goes past this Sunday. Gregg Popovich has done his part to prepare Ginobili’s body for this portion of the season, this type of workload, and presumably Ginobili himself has done his share as well.
With Tony Parker struggling before the injury suffered Monday night and likely impacted by it moving forward, the onus will again be on the man who gets to the basket by looking like he’s trying to avoid a bullet to continue his high level of play. He almost gave the game up last summer, but now that he’s back here, no matter how many turnovers he makes along the way, Manu Ginobili was built for this.