Last June, Manu Ginobili's season laid in ruin, strewn about the American Airlines Arena floor like so many strands of confetti. A championship had slipped through the Spurs' fingers and the ball itself too often from Ginobili's; the freewheeling guard had committed 12 turnovers in the final two games of San Antonio's 2013 Finals loss to Miami, including eight in a gut-wrenching Game 6 defeat.
Ray Allen's now-infamous three-pointer to extend that game to overtime has been sealed in our collective basketball memory. What isn't contained in that clip, however, is Ginobili's incremental self-destruction. An ill-advised three-point attempt. A missed free throw. A near rebound. Two turnovers with less than a minute remaining that sealed the Spurs' fate. From the look on his face in those waning moments, one could see that Ginobili was already haunted -- fully and brutally aware of the cost of his every mistake. Those miscues lingered with him days later, when San Antonio's 2013 Finals run came to its formal end.
"I still have Game 6 in my head," Ginobili said.
It never really left. Ginobili and the Spurs on the whole revisited that series as their first order of business in training camp. They carried the pain with them as a reminder of what getting so close to a championship yields. They kept those old wounds exposed just enough that they would drive the team forward, to the same stage and a better result.
"Last year was a tough one for all of us," Ginobili said on Sunday. "We felt like we had the trophy, that we were touching it, and it slipped away. It was a tough summer. We all felt guilty. We all felt that we let teammates down. But we work hard. We fought every game in the regular season trying to get better to have the same opportunity again. We got to this spot, and we didn't let it go."
Ginobili and his teammates are the 2014 NBA Champions precisely for that reason: They didn't let it go. Rather than put the ghosts of the 2013 Finals to rest, the Spurs put them to work in driving an incredible team to its fullest potential. This was the most lopsided championship series in league history due in part to its emotional proximity to last year's Finals. Not only did San Antonio know what it was playing for, but it fully understood the agony it was playing to avoid.
Nowhere was that more evident than in the play of Ginobili, who was offered a rare chance at redemption in a repeat billing of last year's Finals. In only two other cases since 1970 have the same two Finalists returned for an encore, yet Ginobili -- after all of his anguish -- was gifted an improbable third. He didn't at all disappoint, particularly in his 19-point, four-assist finale in the series-clinching Game 5. A personal history of ineffective play against Miami in the regular season and playoffs was shaken completely in this series, one impact play at a time.
A back-breaking three-pointer. A drawn foul. A defiant dunk. Perfect pass after perfect pass that sealed the Heat's fate. From the look on his face in those waning moments, one could see that the burden had been lifted and the debt paid. Ginobili was again on top of the basketball world, having found equilibrium against the team so responsible for his torment. This time there would be no regrets and no lingering doubt -- only a bottomless flow of champagne and affirmation.
"It's so nice," Ginobili said of this year's Finals win against the backdrop of last year's loss. "It's hard to explain."
One can only imagine. Around this time a year ago, Ginobili was trapped in his own head, dwelling in defeat as he wondered if his NBA career was over. Now he stands triumphant over the defending champions and basketball's living memory. What's past is prologue, and what to come in Manu's discharge.
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