SAN ANTONIO — Manu Ginobili was sent off in style, even though it’s not yet clear whether this was goodbye for good.
The Warriors beat the Spurs 129–115 at the AT&T Center on Monday, sweeping San Antonio out of the Western Conference finals in what may prove to be the final game of Ginobili’s illustrious career. Knowing that his team was badly overmatched without injured All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich decided to insert Ginobili, a perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate, into the Game 4 starting lineup.
“We started him tonight out of respect,” Popovich said, explaining his surprise move. “It may or may not be his last game that he ever plays in, and I did not want to miss the opportunity to honor him in front of our home fans for his selflessness over the years.”
“This is a Hall of Fame player who allowed me to bring him off the bench for the last decade or something, because it would make us a better team overall. He deserved to have that night of respect so that he really feels that we appreciate everything he's done over the years.”
The 39-year-old guard, who has been one of the best and most popular players in franchise history since his 2002 arrival in San Antonio, was introduced last and took the court to thunderous applause. The home crowd regularly serenaded him with “Manu” and “Ole” chants, and his fellow Argentinians wore the country’s distinctive striped soccer jerseys and waved flags.
“It was kind of emotional and overwhelming,” Ginobili said. “I don't have a lot of words to describe it.. Feeling that type of appreciation, love, respect. It's something that we all can appreciate. When it happens in a situation like that and you receive all of that without expecting it, it shakes your world a little bit.”
Ginobili opened the scoring for San Antonio with a lefty finger roll and went on to finish with 15 points (on 6-of-12 shooting) and seven assists. When the four-time NBA champion and two-time All-Star checked out in the game’s closing minutes, he received an extended standing ovation from the AT&T Center crowd and from his players on both teams. Warriors guard Stephen Curry paused to repeatedly clap for Ginobili before proceeding with a foul shot.
“I'm a Manu Ginobili fan,” Curry said. “I tried to do my best to give him that moment. Just take it all in, because you could tell how much he's meant to this organization, to this city. Obviously a true champion. The way that he plays the game, you have no choice but to just love watching him play. His creativity, his passion for the game every night, he's given a lot to the game.”
After struggling mightily against the Grizzlies in the first round, Ginobili turned back the clock to help seal a Game 5 overtime victory over the Rockets in the second round. Then, with Leonard out, he scored a team-high 21 points in a Game 3 loss to the Warriors. Before Game 4, Popovich compared Ginobili to Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
“He's one of those guys who becomes the heart and soul of your team because of his exemplary competitiveness,” Popovich said. "He's really an anomaly in that regard. He has that same foot-on-your-neck attitude that Kobe and Michael had. … To see him at this age, giving us games here and there that take you back. It's just a thrill.”
The burning question, however, is whether Ginobili has the desire to keep reaching into his deep bag of tricks or whether he will follow Tim Duncan into retirement. If Ginobili returns, he would theoretically suit up alongside longtime teammate Tony Parker, Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Green and Pau Gasol, all of whom are under contract for next season.
Popovich, for his part, said he would not attempt to influence Ginobili’s decision. Meanwhile, Warriors All-Star forward Draymond Green noted that Ginobili “worked us pretty good these four games” and that he had “quite a bit left in the tank.”
As he left the court, Ginobili made a point to wave to the crowd, which continued to chant his name and cheer his image on the JumboTron well after the final buzzer. When asked about his future plans, Ginobili remained noncommittal and said he would wait “three or four weeks” before consulting with his wife and family to make his retirement decision.
“For moments, I felt like I didn't [have enough energy left in the tank] in the Memphis series,” he said. “This series I played better. I felt more energetic, more needed, more useful to the team, so I ended up feeling better than the way I started. I do feel like I can still play.
“But that's not what is going to make me retire or not. It's about how I feel, if I want to go through all of that again. It felt like they wanted me to retire. Like they were giving me sort of a celebration night. And of course, I'm getting closer and closer. There is no secret, for sure. It's getting harder and harder.”
Ginobili, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer after earning $14 million this season, painted his decision as a pair of “truly wonderful options.”
“One is to keep playing in this league at this age, enjoying every day, playing the sport I still love,” he explained. “The other one is to stay at home, be a dad, travel more, enjoy my whole family. It's two unbelievable options. There is no way I can be sad. Whatever I decide, it's going to be great.”