Admit it, Spurs fans: You were worried that Manu Ginobili wasn’t merely going through a shooting slump. You believed he had suddenly reached the end of the line of his amazing career. After all, he had gone scoreless in the first four games of the Spurs-Memphis Grizzlies playoff series, missing all 15 shots he attempted.
On Tuesday night at AT&T Center, the Spurs’ 39-year-old guard from Argentina emerged from his malaise to score eight points in the span of 77 seconds in the first quarter of the Spurs’ 116-103 win in Game 5 of their first-round playoff series. He would finish the game with only 10 points, but his early breakout was the emotional touchstone the Spurs needed to regain the lead in the best-of-seven series. They will head to Memphis for Game 6 with a 3-2 series lead and a chance to close the series there on Thursday night.
Ginobili has played with his heart on full display in every game of his 14 seasons with the Spurs, and his struggle had weighed on him. It’s the playoffs, and he is accustomed to elevating his play when games matter most. He avoided reading accounts of his struggles, and he peered inside his own head to discover what was wrong with his game.
“You try to isolate,” he said. “It’s not that I read, but I know how my games have been. Game 1, we played great. There are some games where you only shoot a couple times and it doesn’t go in. Then there are games like Game 3 and 4, the ones we lost. You’re a little harder on yourself, because you know the team needed you more.
“It was tough. I’d never been through a four-game slump like that. It was great today to feel important, to feel useful. I needed one like this.”
So did his teammates, especially close pal Patty Mills, who had a breakout game of his own, making 5-of-7 3-point shots and scoring a career playoff-high 20 points. All the Spurs, Mills said, followed Ginobili’s emotional lead.
“He brought that Grandpa juice, is what I call it,” Mills said, “and we all followed. It’s inspiring.”
Grizzlies coach David Fizdale, who was a Miami Heat assistant coach when the Spurs and Heat hooked up in the 2013 and 2014 NBA Finals, said he’s seen enough of Ginobili to last a lifetime.
“I’m tired of him,” Fizdale said, clearly joking. “He can go back to Argentina, too. I don’t even want to see him on the sideline.”
Ginobili saw every bit of the humor in Fizdale’s assertion.
“Tired of me?” he said. “I’ve been helping him. He should be tired of Kawhi.”
Indeed, Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard was his typically dominant self, despite the Grizzlies’ aggressive double-teaming intended to get the ball out of his hands. He scored a game-high 28 points and assisted on six more Spurs baskets. His scoring average for the series dipped, ever so slightly, to 31.6 points per game. His play in the series has been impactful enough for Hall of Famer Charles Barkley to declare him the second-best player in basketball, behind only Cleveland Cavaliers great LeBron James.
“I didn’t hear it,” Leonard said, “but it doesn’t matter. I’m trying to be the best team in the world right now. It’s not about me. It’s about the Spurs, and that’s all I want to do.”
For Ginobili, it’s always been about the Spurs, and it was Ginobili’s play that had Spurs fans chanting his name on Tuesday, this time after diving on the floor for a loose ball, getting tackled by 40-year-old Grizzlies starter Vince Carter in the process. The emotional lift he provided was beyond measure.
“Manu was fantastic,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He felt good. Obviously, he scored. You know he’s got a huge heart, and he has a huge effect on our team when he’s healthy. And having a good night, starting out the way he did, was really a big boost.”
The Game 5 victory eased the fears of Spurs fans who had begun flashing back to the team’s 2011 first-round series against the Grizzlies. Then, the Spurs had the No. 1 seed after winning 61 regular season games, the same number amassed by this season’s team. Ginobili had been injured in the final regular season game and never was himself in that playoff matchup, the Spurs eventually revealing he had played with a fractured bone in his right elbow. The Grizzlies emerged with a 4-2 upset series victory.
That can’t happen this time, in large part because of what Ginobili did in Game 5. He admits that he feels his age – “When you try to go by somebody and you can’t go by anybody, it’s when you start to feel it,” he said – but is grateful he is not heading toward the end of his career in constant pain, as former teammate Tim Duncan did.
“Many guys my age are in pain,” Ginobili said. “Back problems, knee problems…I don’t have any of that. I’m very lucky in that regard. I’m not in pain. I’m slow, I can’t go back and forth. You lose a lot of explosiveness. That’s normal. But I’m very lucky I’m not in pain. That’s one of the things that stretched my career. Because if it’s a struggle every day, then is when you say it’s enough. Why would I keep doing this? But since I’m slow but steady and not in pain, I feel good.”