He split the Oklahoma City Thunder defense, dished out passes, was ubiquitous with his presence and shot like Reggie Miller would have with the game on the line. It could have been 2005 or 2007, even 2008, except it wasn’t. It was Game 1 of the 2012 Western Conference Finals and Manu Ginobili had the Thunder eating out of his hand.
Well, not eating, but reeling from the havoc caused by the basketball in his hands.
For the record, Ginobili, sixth man for San Antonio, singed the Thunder with 26 points that came from 9-for-14 shooting, including 3-for-5 from 3-point land and a perfect 5-for-5 from the free throw line. More importantly, his eleven points the final 4-1/2 minutes down the stretch of the fourth quarter proved to be the difference in the Spurs’ three-point win over the Thunder.
But why are we surprised? After all Ginobili, an Argentine national, has imposed himself on the San Antonio basketball consciousness with several such stellar performances ever since he joined them in 2002. “You know all those tricks the Thunder's James Harden has unleashed on the NBA the last two years? Sliding through cracks and performing hidden-ball tricks to score a basket? Ginobili's been doing that repeatedly for a decade on the grand stage of the NBA playoffs,” wrote Berry Tramel in his latest column on newswok.com. Such has been his popularity in Alamo territory, that Spurs’ fans have been known to name their newborn babies, ‘Ginobili’.
Yet, Ginobili’s performance on Sunday night at the AT&T center was an exception rather than the norm. Exception because in this crazy, exhausting, truncated campaign, Ginobili has been curtailed by a broken bone in his hand and a strained muscle in his side which limited him to only 34 regular season games. He missed all three of the Spurs' meetings with the Thunder before Sunday. It is also the fewest games Ginobili has played in a regular season in his 10-year NBA career.
His form too played fickle with him this season. He averaged 12.9 points this season, his lowest since his second year in the league back in 2003-04.
Before Sunday night, he dropped 20 points only once in the Spurs' first eight playoff games against Utah and the LA Clippers and topped 20 only nine times
all regular season.
Understandably, Ginobili has been slowed down by every athlete’s eternal nemesis, age. He will turn 35 in July and for a player who turned pro at the age of 17, that means Ginobili has spent half his life shredding defenses with his lissome play. Across Europe, for Argentina and among the NBA’s elite teams, Ginobili has transformed himself into a basketball superstar whose fame isn’t held captive purely by the three championship teams that he has been a part of with San Antonio in 2003, 2005 and 2007. In fact, Ginobili had already established his eminence when he won MVP of the Euroleague en route to leading Bologna, Italy, to the 2001 championship. He then turned into a national hero when he led Argentina to the gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. In doing so, Ginobili emulated former New York Knicks’ star, Bill Bradley, as being only one of two players to have won a Euroleague title, an NBA championship, and an Olympic gold medal.
Such unflinching commitment for club and country, nevertheless, had to take its toll. Gregg Doyel, national columnist of CBSSports.com, wrote discerningly of Ginobili’s latest exploits while reflecting on his long career:
“Those have been hard minutes because of the way he plays. Some players treat their bodies like luxury cars and slip into cruise control. They coast. They glide. Not Ginobili. He treats his body like a monster truck -- he attacks, he crashes. He has been a professional basketball player for 18 years, and those have been hard years. Dog years. His body is 34, going on 35, going on 70. In basketball years, Ginobili is ancient.”
Doyel’s assessment could not be more correct because in many ways Ginobili is the original version of Chicago Bulls’ All-Star guard, Derrick Rose. Like Rose, Ginobili attacks the rim without worrying too much about collateral damage. His natural left-hand play already gives most defenders in the league an unfamiliar opponent to handle, but it is in his daring of them where his mettle bares itself play after play. As a viewer, just ask yourself how many times have you been confronted with the sight of Ginobili’s wiry frame blowing past his opponent for a layup only to get fouled while making the basket? For a lot of us, commentators Mike Breen or Marv Albert breaking into, “Ginobili, puts it in and gets the foul,” has become an all too familiar litany while watching a Spurs game.
Tramel even quoted Nazr Mohammed, Ginobili’s former teammate on the Spurs’ roster in 2005 and 2006, in this regard, who said, “He does bring an attitude, he's never going to quit. Everyone pretty much knows he's the type of guy who gives it all he's got, leave it on the court. He's not going to quit on a possession; he's going to get it done.”
And so, as the Spurs look to put it past Oklahoma City for, possibly, one final shot at the NBA championship with their veteran core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Ginobili, it should be the last of those names that the Thunder should fear the most. After all, lightning is known to strike twice.
All stats are after games played on May 29, 2012 (IST)