scored a season-high 24 points in Game 5. (Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
SAN ANTONIO -- Manu Ginobili is destined for the Hall of Fame and his greatness, in both the NBA and in international basketball, has been secure for years. But adding another chapter never hurts.
That's exactly what Ginobili did on Sunday night, scoring 24 points to lead the Spurs past the Heat 114-104 in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. The surprising scoring outburst came as coach Gregg Popovich moved him into the starting lineup for the first time all season, and it broke up a slump that was weeks in the making.
"I needed it," said Ginobili, who added 10 assists in 33 minutes. "I was having a tough time scoring, and I needed to feel like the game was coming to me, and I was being able to attack the rim, get to the free-throw line, and make a couple of shots."
Ginobili's 24 points marked a season high (regular season and postseason). His 8-for-14 shooting performance (57.1 percent) tied his playoff best in terms of efficiency, and it included a number of classic Ginobili off-balance miracles.
"I'm being honest, I don't care about scoring 24," he said after the Spurs took a 3-2 lead as the series shifts back to Miami. "Just being more aggressive, trying to get to the line, being sharper with the passes. For example, Game 3 [a 103-77 victory0 I was thrilled and I scored seven. We moved the ball so well, everybody felt so active and responsive, and we all attacked and passed well. I don't care about [scoring]."
Popovich told the Spurs on Saturday that Ginobili would be inserted into the starting lineup in place of Tiago Splitter, allowing San Antonio an easier matchup with Miami's smaller starting lineup, which now features Mike Miller in place of Udonis Haslem. The move came just a few days after Popovich admitted that he was concerned by Ginobili's shooting struggles.
"Manu is a competitor, he just keeps pushing, and he does what he does," Popovich said after Game 5. "He's come to practice and worked on his shot. He's seen film. He has confidence in himself that he should just continue to compete. That's what he's done his whole career. And tonight he played his best game in a while."
Ginobili hit a 22-foot jump shot less than 20 seconds into the game and had seven points and four assists in the first quarter as the Spurs opened a 32-19 lead.
"I told you Manu was going to play good," San Antonio point guard Tony Parker said. "You didn’t believe me. ... That first shot was huge, because that was not even a play for him. It was a play for me. He kept it, and it was like a broken play, and he hits that [long two-pointer]."
That early work was just the beginning. Ginobili was a crucial part of San Antonio's decisive 19-1 at the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth. He scored a series of baskets and tossed a beautiful pass to Splitter for an easy hoop to give the Spurs significant breathing room. All this after scoring five points on 1-for-5 shooting in a Game 4 loss, tying his lowest output of the playoffs.
Tim Duncan told reporters after Game 4 that he felt Ginobili wasn't being selfish enough, that he was too quick to skip the ball around the perimeter rather that looking to create his own opportunities.
"I just thought he was a bit more aggressive," Duncan said after Game 5. "I know that's kind of the answer to everything. He's a bit more aggressive. He looked for his shot a bit more. And on top of that, just let the game come to him. He made some great plays, got the floor spread for him, got to attack the basket."
Duncan admitted Sunday that he could tell Ginobili was upset by his performance in Game 4.
"He did seem dejected," Duncan said. "He's a competitor, an extreme competitor. He wants to play well and he wants to help our team do well. Just like a lot of us, we lose games and we take the blame for it. He's just the same way."
Ginobili said he felt "angry" and disappointed" and that it was "frustrating" not to be able to contribute in a more meaningful fashion. Ginobili wasn't alone in those feelings, as his poor play drew questions and criticism from reporters and fans, especially after Game 4.
At 35, Ginobili's best days are well behind him, and he's struggled with his shot and with turnovers throughout the postseason. Parker and Duncan agreed that the criticism of Ginobili that preceded Game 5 bothered them.
"Because for everything he did for the franchise, I thought it was a little bit too harsh," Parker said. "We understand it's a business."
Duncan added: "We're not a team or an organization that kind of points fingers in that respect. I know it's on the media to find out what's wrong with everybody, what happened whatever game, but he's such a huge part of what we do. And how far we've come. And you can see it tonight in how we played and the results of the game."
There weren't any critics on Sunday. Seemingly hundreds of Spurs fans wore his jersey to the AT&T Center and the crowd serenaded him by chanting his name during the second half. At least one group of fans brought an Argentine flag to express their support, and the cheers were deafening as he made play after play in the second half.
Ginobili said he wasn't aware of specific criticisms of his game entering Sunday night, but he knew his play was being put under the microscope.
"I really don't know exactly what was going on, but with so much media around, they ask you things that you are not used to [answering]," he said. "That's when you realize you're being criticized. But I really don't read what's going on. I knew that I was not scoring much, and I feel it in the air. But I tried not to care about it."
San Antonio is now just one win away from the fourth title of Ginobili's career. The Spurs will have two shots at securing their fourth win: Game 6 is Tuesday in Miami and Game 7, if necessary, is scheduled for Thursday.
"I'm really excited for Manu, for his performance tonight, but we need him to do it one more time," Duncan said. "We need one more win. We need all of us to show up and play well."