SAN ANTONIO -- If this truly were the end, then there could be no other way to go out for Manu Ginobili. The chants enveloped him like spectral confetti, like echoes of another time. "Manu," his fans were shouting as he walked to the bench and flopped on a padded chair at the end of the third quarter. "Manu, Manu, Manu ..."
This would be the last NBA Finals game the Spurs -- as we know them, and as they know one another -- would play in this building on this floor. That was the way they were viewing this Sunday night. Their run of championships in this building was going to end here, win or lose. They had been through enough together to know what it meant.
They may yet lose the championship over the next two games in Miami, but they weren't going to lose Game 5 here. They were going to start Ginobili. He was going to be renewed, and they were going to fend off the Heat. That they did, by a score of 114-104, to put themselves within one more win of their fifth championship since Tim Duncan came here 16 years ago, and their fourth since Duncan was joined by Tony Parker and Ginobili.
"I needed it," Ginobili said after he provided a season-high 24 points and 10 assists for his first 20-and-10 game since 2008. "I was having a tough time scoring, and I needed to feel like the game was coming to me. I was being able to attack the rim, get to the free-throw line, and make a couple of shots."
What he needed was to hear his name.
"It felt great when I heard that," he said of the chanting that he used to hear routinely, when 20-and-10 games and trips to the Finals were part of the routine. "To feel that I really helped the team to get that 20-point lead, it was a much-needed moment in the series. So I'm glad to see it happen."
He needed to hear his name from his fans and from his coach. When Gregg Popovich told the 35-year-old Ginobili that he would be starting in Game 5 for the first time this season, there was no inspirational talk of getting him involved or how much the Spurs needed him. Popovich talked about how the Heat were playing small, and about how he needed to play small in reply. Left unsaid in their matter-of-fact exchange was the understanding that Popovich needed to find out immediately whether Ginobili was going to be aggressive. The ball was going to be in his hands from the start and, in the biggest game of the NBA season, the Spurs weren't going to be able to wait for the echoes of Ginobili's past. All of it was exactly what Ginobili wanted to hear.
"I was angry, disappointed," Ginobili said. "We are playing in the NBA Finals, we were 2-2, and I felt I still wasn't really helping the team that much. And that was the frustrating part."
His teammates were angry and disappointed for him, as opposed to being angry and disappointed with him. There is a big difference, and that explains how, after so many years, they could care so much about winning another championship when they own three or four already. It's not the championship that drives them; it's that they care so much about each other.
"He did seem dejected," Duncan said. "He's a competitor, an extreme competitor, and he wants to play well and he wants to help our team do well. He wanted to play well really badly. I knew he would come out tonight. I knew he would play well."
They were angry to hear their friend being criticized for the meager 7.5 points he was averaging in the series and the minus-9 impact he was averaging for each of the games. For as long as they've been playing together, it's as if Duncan and Parker and Ginobili have been thriving in a world they still don't seem to -- or want to -- understand. They have been and always will be critical of one another in an encouraging way. They are teammates in an era of individuality. They are three constructive stars performing for an audience that tends to view all such performances destructively and skeptically.
They are half-full believers in a half-empty world. There is no way the Spurs should have been able to win for as long as they've won, or reach these Finals a half-dozen years since the prime of their youth, or think they deserve to take a 3-2 lead over a championship team led by the world's greatest player and his two prodigiously talented friends. The Spurs are one win away from this championship because they believe in hard work and they believe in one another, and so it was only natural for them to believe that the Ginobili they used to know would be with them when they really needed him.
With the first play of the game, Ginobili dribbled to one side in search of a switch against Chris Bosh, then drained one of his fully extended jumpers with his feet straddling the three-point line.
"That first shot was huge, because that was not even a play for him," Parker said. "It was a play for me."
Later, he found Danny Green for a layup with a no-look pass. He fed Duncan for a dunk that was slammed hard, as if to announce the impact of Ginobili, who needed fewer than five minutes to generate more points (eight) and assists (three) than he had throughout his 26 negligible minutes in Game 4. After that Miami victory, the Heat stars had insisted that the introduction of Mike Miller into their starting lineup had no effect on their elevated play. Maybe it had no influence on them, but it turned out to be constructive for the Spurs, who in turn put Ginobili into the starting lineup and put the ball in his hands, forcing him to take over the game rather than to find his way into it.
"They're playing defense so high on me and Timmy," Parker said. "So when [Ginobili is] playing with us and they're still going to trap me and still going to pay attention to Timmy, Manu is going to get opportunities. And tonight he was great."
Ginobili and Parker took turns driving the Spurs' offense. Parker, exhausted by playing through a strained right hamstring for two games, could not have carried the Spurs alone. He needed Ginobili, and when the Heat had devoured all of the 17-point lead built up by San Antonio in the opening half, it was Ginobili who was responsible for launching the Spurs into the fourth with a decisive 87-75 advantage. He blocked a shot by Dwyane Wade, he threw his shoulder into the chest of Ray Allen for one three-point drive and into Norris Cole for another basket, he finished a spread-eagle runner over Udonis Haslem, and he was responsible, by way of scoring or assisting, for every point in the quarter-ending 12-1 run. And in the midst of it, as he waited to shoot at the free-throw line, he heard that which he has never taken for granted, and that which he may never hear while playing in so big a game in this city ever again.
"Manu ... Manu ... Manu..."
Next week, this city may hold a parade to celebrate the latest, and most probably the last, of its current run of championships. But no celebration can match what was lauded here Sunday. One of the Spurs' own had been suffering, and by helping him, they each helped themselves. The reunion of the Big Three was not a stroll into the past; it felt like something entirely new. When Manu Ginobili heard the love in the cheering of his name, it was as if he had never heard anything like it before, and never will again.