Off to the Races

To beat the Spurs, Detroit has to prepare for the headlong assaults of swingman Manu Ginobili. The hardest part: Even Ginobili doesn't know what he'll do next
June 12, 2005

San Antonio Spurs swingman Manu Ginobili, a native of Argentina, can't come up with a Spanish translation for unorthodox. "I would say it as poco ortodoxo," he says finally. "But look, it's only after I came here that I started hearing that word. I don't think of myself so much in that way."  Around the NBA, Manu, most of your colleagues view your playing style precisely that way. As San Antonio takes on Detroit in the Finals, which begin on Thursday at the SBC Center, it will be vital to the Pistons' success that they expect the unexpected, anticipating which circuitous route Ginobili will take to the basket, or when the 6'6" southpaw is likely to swoop in for a steal or a rebound. "Good luck," says Spurs assistant coach P.J. Carlesimo, "because half the time Manu doesn't know himself."

The 27-year-old Ginobili is not the face of the Spurs: That's the expressionless mug of superstar forward Tim Duncan, or the stern visage of coach Gregg Popovich. But the cojones of the franchise? That's Manu. He wants to handle the ball against pressure, to create with the clock running down at crunch time, to go to the foul line with the game in the balance, to guard the opponent's top scorer down the stretch. "He has a no-holds-barred mentality because all he thinks about is, What can I do to help us win?" says Popovich.

In San Antonio's 16 Western Conference playoff games, only Duncan (24.9) averaged more points than Ginobili (21.8), and only point guard Tony Parker averaged more assists (4.8 to 4.3). Ginobili led the team with 1.19 steals per game, averaged more rebounds (5.8) than 6'10" forward Robert Horry (5.7) and was more accurate from beyond the arc (46.2%) than both off-the-bench marksman Brent Barry (44.0%) and Horry (42.6%), who is known as Big Shot Bob for his clutch perimeter shooting. And despite careering around the court like a teenager in a mosh pit, Ginobili stayed out of foul trouble, enabling Popovich to keep him on the court for 32.5 minutes a game.

Indeed, it is the frenzy of Ginobili's game that most contributes to his unorthodoxy. Manu is hard-pressed to name a player he resembles. "Do you know any, TJ?" he asks Spurs public relations director Tom James as he passes by.

"There is nobody," says James.

Ginobili's teammates are stumped as well. "Maybe Drazen Petrovic," says forward Bruce Bowen, citing the Croatian guard who died in a car accident in 1993. "But Petrovic was more of a shooter. Manu attacks."

"Everybody has a little different way to play the game," says Barry, who nicknamed Ginobili El Contusion because of his penchant for banging into other bodies and hitting the floor, "but Manu is completely different from anyone else. No coach in his right mind would teach a player to do a one-handed, lefthanded crossover dribble followed by a behind-the-back switch of hands followed by a reverse layup--in the Western Conference finals. That is not fundamental practice." But it was effective: That exact sequence by Ginobili late in the fourth quarter helped the Spurs beat the Phoenix Suns 111-108 in Game 2.

An avid Manuologist, Barry enjoys watching Ginobili experiment after practice. "He's heading balls in, he's kicking balls in, he's trying wild shots," says Barry. "But he always works at it rather than just does it. So maybe there is a method to his madness."

Ginobili seems to believe that no move is too ludicrous to try, no situation too perilous for improvisation. His willingness to go behind his back in heavy traffic--he's not a point guard, after all--is another sign of his unconventionality. He and Popovich have had, in Ginobili's words, "several conversations" about that maneuver since Manu's arrival in San Antonio in 2002. (The Spurs drafted him 57th in 1999, and he played in Italy before joining the NBA; he signed a six-year, $52 million contract extension last July.) "But I say, 'Pop, I don't do this just to be fancy,'" Ginobili says. "I've been dribbling like that since I was three years old. I always had a ball in my hand."

Bowen, a limited offensive talent who would rank among the NBA players least likely to dribble behind their back in traffic, defends Ginobili's flamboyance. "Manu has learned that the best defenders will shade you in the direction you're heading but keep their off hand down," he says. "They'll nail you if you cross over. But Manu goes way out [Bowen pantomimes Ginobili's sweeping behind-the-back dribble] where the defender can't get it. I'm glad some of the guys I guard don't do it."

Though his legs are relatively short for his frame, Ginobili covers an inordinate amount of ground, which has led to much wailing that he travels more than a rail-riding hobo. "I do not travel," says Ginobili. "I take two steps always." Bowen, who played for parts of two seasons in France, agrees. "We're taught over here to take these little pitty-pat two steps, but in Europe they take two long steps," he says. One NBA referee, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that while officials do get complaints about Ginobili's alleged traveling, "it's not even an issue."

Along with long steps, Ginobili takes side steps, so his journey to the hoop is seldom a straight--or predictable--route. He charges into the lane like a tailback into the line, feinting toward one hole then darting into another. "Manu's learned to take his steps wide and not in the same direct path," says Bowen. "He uses his steps to get around people, not just by them."

Ginobili has become such an effective one-on-one player that an interesting subplot has developed on the Spurs: When the clock is running down late in a close game, will Popovich put the ball in the hands of his point guard, Parker, or Ginobili? Parker can get to the rim or shoot his high-arcing "teardrop" from inside 10 feet. But Ginobili is just as lethal, and lately Popovich has trusted him to go Manu a mano in tight games. Ginobili slashes to the hoop, has a pull-up jumper and finds teammates when he's doubled. Before Game 3 of the Western finals, the Suns were working on their defensive rotations in practice when someone asked, "What do we do if Ginobili gets to this spot?"

Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni's answer: "Pray that he misses."

Ginobili also has a knack for absorbing contact and still getting off a good shot, which is fortunate for him, since his giant-steps journeys to the basket frequently--make that almost always--bring him into contact with a defender or two, not to mention the court. In San Antonio's 102-92 Game 3 win, Phoenix center Amaré Stoudemire almost pulled Ginobili's left arm out of its socket in an effort to stop a reckless excursion to the hoop; later, an undeterred Manu barreled toward the basket, knees up, challenging Stoudemire, a shot blocker, to knock him down. Stoudemire complied. Whistle, basket good, three-point play.

"I don't think about drawing the contact on purpose," Ginobili says. "I just want to get to the line." Which he does. Among the Spurs, only Duncan (9.4 free throws per game) has been to the line in the postseason more than Ginobili (9.0).

Though he's been called a flopper, Ginobili usually springs to his feet without comment after being flattened. He may be emotional--there has never been a dancing-on-the-court celebration like the one Ginobili and his Argentine teammates put on after they won the gold medal last August in Athens--but he is not confrontational. To opponents, no doubt, he can be an irritant. During San Antonio's first-round five-game triumph over the Nuggets, Denver coach George Karl summed up Ginobili's style as "put your head down and run into people."

Ginobili's unconventionality is evident in his gambling defense, too, and it's an ongoing debate whether his style works for the Spurs more than it works against them. "Manu could be a great defensive player," says Barry with a smile, "he just chooses not to be." At times Ginobili seems to spring from some trapdoor to make a steal (as he did to a surprised Stoudemire several times) or fly out of nowhere to knock away a ball from behind (as he also did to Steve Nash in the Western finals). When Popovich demands that Ginobili restrict his roaming and play straight up, Ginobili is blessed with the speed, athleticism and determination to stay in front of his man. Ginobili and Bowen often trade off guarding the opponent's top perimeter threat; they make an exasperating tandem, as Detroit's Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince will no doubt discover.

The defending champion Pistons will have a number of defensive priorities, the first two being to surround Duncan on the inside and keep Parker from penetrating the lane. They will also make sure to locate Horry, who loves to float around the arc and insert a three-point dagger at a key moment. But the book on how to play Ginobili--the Manu-al, as it were--is thin. The Nuggets, the SuperSonics and the Suns tried roughly the same things in the first three rounds of the playoffs: crowd him because he's a great three-point shooter; make him go right, because he doesn't dribble well with his off hand; and push him toward help, because when he leaves his feet, he's prone to giving the ball up.

The toughest thing about planning for Ginobili, however, is that you don't know exactly what to plan for. "Manu has changed me as a coach," says Popovich. "He's made me believe that you can do the strange and unpredictable and be out of position once in a while yet still make something positive happen. Whatever he does, he does only to win, because he has the exact competitive nature of a Michael Jordan."

"That's nice of Pop to say," Ginobili says, "but he will still let me know when I do something he doesn't think is quite right, you know?"

That is happening less and less as Ginobili changes perceptions about how the game can be played. Whether he is able to work his magic on Detroit--be it ortodoxo or poco ortodoxo--will go a long way toward deciding the fate of the Spurs.

FOR MORE COVERAGE OF THE NBA FINALS, including the latest news, up-to-the-minute photographs and Web-only analysis from Jack McCallum, Marty Burns and Chris Mannix,

GO TO SI.com/nba

"NO COACH," says Barry, "would teach a player to do a lefthanded crossover followed by a behind-the-back switch of hands followed by a reverse layup--in the conference finals."

COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by John W. McDonough LEFTHANDED COMPLEMENT Ginobili, a southpaw, gives the Spurs a unique mix of rebounding, clutch passes and key baskets. THREE COLOR PHOTOSPhotographs by John W. McDonough DIFFERENT SLANTS In San Antonio's run through the Western Conference playoffs, Ginobili seldom made the same move twice. COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by John W. McDonough TIM MATE While Duncan is the Spurs' low-post hub, Manu is often the Man on the perimeter.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)