Posted Apr 14 2011 6:12PM
Through eight seasons and three championships, the Spurs always treated Manu Ginobili as if he were a jar of nitroglycerine; volatile, explosive and in need of careful handling.
They watched him plunge himself like a cue ball on the break into every possession of every game, wondering when that scatter-everything-across-the-table style might produce a scratch that would cut short his career.
Now they simply watch and wonder just how far he can take them in a season when Ginobili and the Spurs have busted loose.
But first they'll watch that right elbow, which was sprained in the regular-season finale and has Ginobili listed as doubtful for Game 1 of the playoffs Sunday against the Grizzlies. An MRI performed on Thursday showed the injury as a sprain.
For much of the season, Ginobili's minute-per-game average was higher than at any point in his career, though just slightly. Yet his role in the middle of San Antonio's re-worked, up-tempo offense has become super-sized.
"It's funny, isn't it?" Ginobili said with a grin. "All those years when I was younger, they were so worried about controlling my minutes. When I was 27, I was only playing 27 minutes. Now that I'm over 30, my minutes are over, too. What is Pop saying to me?"
What coach Gregg Popovich was saying -- after the Spurs finished seventh last year in the Western Conference and were swept by the Suns in the second round of the playoffs -- was that the Spurs had to evolve in order to survive. While there would be no shift away from the three-man core of the Spurs -- Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Ginobili -- the roles would shift. Rather than run everything inside-out through Duncan, the Spurs would try to conserve the minutes of the All-Star forward and keep him fresh for the playoffs with an attack that would have Ginobili and Parker step down hard on the gas pedal.
The result has been Ginobili scoring 17.6 points per game, almost 2 ½ points a game more than his career average. He's taken and made more shots, hoisting up more 3-pointers and handing out more assists as the Spurs reached the elite 60-win plateau. What's more, for the first time in his career, Ginobili was a full-time starter. He's come off the bench only once all season.
"The bottom line truth is I thought he deserved it," Popovich said. "He's played whatever you want to call it -- the wonderful teammate martyr kind of role, I'll-come-off-the-bench-if-Coach-wants-me-to -- long enough. It's served us well.
"But at this point in his career he deserved to be out there as a starter, because I think he's one of the best players in the world. And we decided that our team, as it gets a little bit older, needs to have the best players on the court the greatest amount of time. So for all those reasons we said he's gonna start."
It is a move that Popovich and the Spurs wouldn't have dreamed of a year earlier. The 2009-10 season began with Ginobili trying to bounce back from stress fractures in both ankles. The franchise had enough questions about his physical state to let him play out almost the entire season before finally signing him to a three-year, $39-million contract extension last April.
Ginobili had begun to erase any lingering doubts late in the 2010 regular season when Parker was sidelined with a wrist injury and the ball was placed in his hands. All he did was pop in 38 points in 37 minutes at Cleveland against LeBron James. Then he scored 38 points in 45 minutes to beat Atlanta, 43 in 35 to beat Orlando and 28 in 36 to beat Boston. Then he went on to play 35 minutes per game last spring in the playoffs.
"My style of play and the way the team has used me, I know that I am never going to be somebody who plays 38 or 40 minutes a game all of the time," Ginobili said. "But I have never thought that I could not do that in certain situations when they need me.
"I had that difficult year from 2008 into 2009 when I was not healthy for one reason or another. But it wasn't about my age or running out of gas. Those were only injuries and I knew when I could recover and be healthy again for a season, I could be my old self again."
So here is Ginobili, at 33, in the final days of his finest season, a season that should put him in the MVP conversation. He is still that break-neck race car driver who takes every turn on two wheels. And now he's carrying more of the overall burden.
"Manu is doing a lot of different things that we haven't seen," said teammate Antonio McDyess. "He's always been that guy we want to have the ball in his hands at the end of games. Now he's pushing the ball up and taking advantage more early. He's been a lot more vocal, I must say. He's being much more of a leader on the floor. I think that's been a difference for him.
"For me, I would say he should be talked about for MVP, because he's been carrying us the whole year and look where we are. If it was up to me, I would say it. Of course, I'm a little biased."
The unbiased numbers say the Spurs are 13-1 this season in games when he scores 25 or more points. He still knifes through the smallest cracks in the defense to find his way through the lane, still pulls up to stab in the killer 3-pointer, still does more improvisation at both ends of the floor than a jazz musician.
"I don't ever change the way I am," Ginobili said. "When I'm out on the court, you'll notice."
The Spurs have always counted on him. Now they're counting on him even more. No longer handling with care.
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