SAN ANTONIO -- Even in the very best moment of Manu Ginobili's postseason, the 35-year-old future Hall of Famer didn't seem totally trustworthy.
More than a month has passed since Ginobili nailed a game-winning three-pointer to deliver a double-overtime victory over the Warriors in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals on May 6. He didn't just make the winner that night, though, he made amends. Remember, his heroics came on a night in which he shot 5 for 20, including an ill-advised missed three in the final minute of the second overtime that nearly cost San Antonio the game.
Let's just say that there haven't been too many Popovich-prepared breakfasts in bed for Ginobili since then. As the Spurs rolled through the Warriors and Grizzlies to qualify for the Finals against the Heat, they often took key victories in spite of Ginobili rather than because of him. Since that dramatic shot against Golden State, the Argentinian guard has topped 20 points just once and scored in single-digits in seven of the Spurs' last nine games, including three straight in the Finals against the Heat.
San Antonio's balanced play this postseason has stripped the "Big 3" moniker of any meaning other than a historical nod to a decade-plus of greatness. On a list of the Spurs' most indispensable players during the fifth Finals run of Tim Duncan's storied career, there's no longer any way to justify including Ginobili in the top three. The exercise starts with Tony Parker and Duncan, the two obvious names, and continues with Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs' unshakeable 21-year-old two-way wing with All-Star potential. Next comes the hero of the moment, Danny Green, who is shooting an astonishing 19 for 28 (67.9 percent) on three-pointers in the Finals and doing his part defensively on Miami's stars. With those four in place, Ginobili then joins the discussion, alongside the likes of Gary Neal and Tiago Splitter.
What's happening here? Ginobili maintains, according to ESPN.com, that his aging body "is not the issue" and Popovich sounded mystified during a conference call on Friday following Miami's 109-93 Game 4 victory, in which Ginobili had just five points (on 1-for-5 shooting) and two assists while posting a minus-22 in 26 minutes.
"Of course, I am [concerned]," Popovich said. "He's having a tough playoffs, and he hasn't really found a rhythm or found his game yet. I think that he's obviously not as confident as usual, and he knows full well that he hasn't performed the way he would like and the way he's used to. But it's simplistic to say, what are we going to do to get him going? He's going to get himself going or he won't. He knows that he's got to play better for us to be successful."
Ginobili is shooting 37.7 percent in the 2013 playoffs, the lowest postseason shooting mark of his career, and that number has dropped to 34.5 percent in the Finals. His 10.6 points per game in the playoffs is his lowest postseason mark since his rookie season and he's tallying just 7.5 points per game in the Finals.
"Yes, I am surprised [by my play]," Ginobili said after Game 4, according to CBSSports.com. "I wish I could score more, but it's not happening. I've got to try and do other stuff, I've got to move the ball if the shot is not falling."
His wayward stroke has coincided with dips in his field goal attempts (just 7.3 in the Finals) and free-throw attempts (2 per game in the Finals). In other words, he's less efficient and less aggressive, a bad combination on this stage.
"He's just trying to be incredibly unselfish right now," Duncan said. "I think he's trying to make the right play at the right time. He's trying to make the right pass, make the defense move instead of looking for his own. I think he's just trying to make the right play more than anything. We need him to be a little more aggressive, be a little more selfish, maybe."
There have been positive contributions. Ginobili has been at his best offensively when moving the ball around the perimeter, as the Spurs did brilliantly in Game 3, and he's good for a highlight reel pass virtually every time he takes the court. Ginobili registered six assists in Game 3 and twice registered 11 assists in victories over the Warriors. With Parker feeling the effects of a strained hamstring, that play-making has been more than helpful.
"In Game 3 he made every trigger pass for them that embarrassed us," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Friday. "He was in the middle of all those plays that either led to points in the paint or three‑point shooting. Even though the stat line may not be what everybody wanted, he had a tremendous impact."
Unfortunately for San Antonio, Ginobili has been less interested in his own offense and has struggled with turnovers throughout the postseason. When the Heat have ratcheted up their defensive pressure on the perimeter, as they did in Games 2 and 4, Ginobili has often looked swallowed up or overwhelmed, uncertain how to navigate against younger, quicker defenders. He's found trouble as often as he's found fortune in scramble situations, an area that has long produced some of his most memorable and mesmerizing basketball.
"We've always looked at him very similar to our guy, to Dwyane [Wade]," Spoelstra said. "What makes him probably most dangerous is the unpredictability, his ability to be aggressive and do things on the court that aren't necessarily scripted. That's where he's most dangerous."
The comparisons between Wade and Ginobili have flown around over the last few days, because the two men share a position, an All-Star pedigree, and because both have come under scrutiny for their below-standard play as of late. Game 4 was a good reminder about the crucial difference between the two players as offensive options during the postseason: Wade has been inconsistent while Ginobili has been unreliable. Wade has found a way to get close to peak levels, as he did in Game 4 against the Spurs and in Game 7 against the Pacers, whereas Ginobili has essentially sputtered.
"We definitely need Manu," Parker said after Game 4. "I have a lot of confidence in Manu. I'm sure he's going to break out of that slump. I've been playing with him for a long time. I just know he's going to have a big game soon."
The contrast with Wade, who is four years younger, should go a long way to setting expectations for the rest of the series. The Spurs have beaten the Heat twice without a vintage effort from Ginobili and it's conceivable that they could manage another two victories without him reaching back to his mid-aughts heyday. The Heat need Wade to play well or the whole house of cards falls apart. The Spurs can reach and sustain high-level action with or without Ginobili as a lead scoring threat.
Make no mistake, San Antonio would love for him to go on one of his patented game-changing bursts on Sunday, craftily getting deep into the paint and smoothly knocking down three-pointers. The more he gives, the better, as with anyone, star or scrub. But the Spurs haven't waited on Ginobili over the last month and they're not in a position -- with the Finals tied 2-2 -- to start now. A breakout night from Ginobili in one of the two or three remaining games could swing the series for San Antonio. So too could another explosion from Neal, or a 25/15 from Duncan, or an A+ night from Parker (something we haven't seen yet), or another team defense masterpiece like Game 3.
A machine -- and the Spurs are often called a machine -- isn't worth much if the breakdown of a single cog prevents it from properly functioning.
"[Manu] has been doing this so long that he understands the wins in some ways are a relief, and the losses are devastating, and you can't let either affect you," Popovich said. "You just go on with your business."