Watching Manu Ginobili surgically carve up a sturdy Miami defense for 16 points and 11 assists in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday sparked the memory of the time when it seemed possible Ginobili wouldn't be here. It was June 2013 and the Spurs had just been heartbreakingly eliminated from the Finals. Ginobili, in the last year of his contract and finishing a pedestrian playoff run, hinted he could retire. Magic Johnson suggested he should. Ginobili was 35, had played 11 seasons -- plus two extra years in playoff games -- and owned three championship rings. After making nearly $100 million in his career, Ginobili could walk away with no regrets.
He didn't, of course. The next month, Ginobili agreed to a two-year, $14.5 million deal, and the rest is history. He averaged a solid 12.3 points and 4.3 assists during the regular season and ratcheted up his scoring to 14.1 points in the Western Conference playoffs. He was a plus-98 in the Spurs march through the West and was plus-22 in San Antonio's 110-95 Game 1 win.
"He was very effective tonight," Tim Duncan noted. "Moving the ball, making the right passes. He made some shots early
This is what Ginobili does best. Gone are the days of consistently exploding to the rim or bursting by a defender in the half court. He is no longer 'El Contusione,' the player who actively sought contact, though some opponents still gripe that Ginobili hits the floor a little too often. Yet even as his athleticism has faded, Ginobili remains effective. The quick step back jump shot is still there -- Rashard Lewis, who was the victim of a brilliant one in the first half, can attest -- as is his three-point shot. Craftiness has replaced much of the quickness in Ginobili's game, but he is still a tremendously effective pick-and-roll player.
Ginobili's ability to adapt is partly why he is still here. From 2003 to 2006, Ginobili was a staple in the Spurs' starting lineup. Beginning in the 2006-2007 season, Gregg Popovich began experimenting with Ginobili in a reserve role. That same year, the Spurs went on to sweep Cleveland in the Finals. He made it permanent in '07-'08. Ginobili didn't love it at first, but he quickly adjusted to it, averaging a career-best 19.5 points in '07-'08 and winning the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award.
Game 1 on Thursday showcased the best of Ginobili. There were the cross-court passes and the long euro steps. There were the passes through tight double teams and critical three's that stopped Miami runs. His three three's in his first five minutes were more than he had through four games against Miami last year, and Ginobili became the first player to compile at least 15 points, five rebounds and five assists off the bench since Michael Cooper did in 1982. And while players from both sides succumbed to fatigue and cramps in the suffocating 90-degree heat, the Argentinean-born Ginobili, one month from his 37th birthday, looked surprisingly fresh.
"For sure, I've played more years in situations like this than with AC on the court," Ginobili said. "[It's] not a big deal in that case."
The two guard matchup is one of the true wild cards in this series. Power forward is close to a wash and the Heat have a significant edge at small forward. Like Ginobili, Dwyane Wade is having a resurgent postseason. And Ray Allen continues to put up big numbers. But when Ginobili has it going, when he is creating offense for his teammates, drawing fouls on opponents and making plays in transition, the Ginobili-Danny Green duo can match up with anything Miami offers. Consider: In Game 1, Wade and Allen combined for 35 points and five assists. Green and Ginobili totaled 29 points and 12 assists.
For the Spurs, Ginobili's effort can't be a one-off. Miami is too experienced to be rattled and with two days off, LeBron James will have more than enough time to recover from the leg cramps that forced him out of the game in the final four minutes. It's one down, three to go for San Antonio, and it will need brilliance from Ginobili to get them.
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