Playoffs 2017: West Semifinals -- Spurs (2) vs. Rockets (3)

Manu Ginobili steps up when San Antonio Spurs need him most with virtuoso performance

With Kawhi Leonard ailing, veteran leads Spurs to Game 5 win over Rockets

Fran Blinebury

SAN ANTONIO — The one thing we know for certain that “Grandpa Juice” cannot do is grow hair. Everything else is up for discussion.

As the clock ticked down, James Harden rose for one final try, one last chance and was met by a memory with a spreading bald spot that blocked his shot.

“It was a risky play,” said Manu Ginobili.

Just like his entire career. Full of floor burns and bruises and nights when he treated his own body with callous disregard just to make something happen.

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This was not a soon-to-be 40 year old playing out the string, but a maestro showing the kids how to keep pulling all the strings.

Slashing across the lane for one of his vintage drives where he comes out on the other side of the basket and kisses the ball off the glass. Pulling up fearlessly out front and banging home a 3-pointer as if he didn’t have a care in the world. Even roaring down the court late in the second quarter, finding another gear, and then rising up as a lefty to flush a right-handed, wrong-footed dunk.

“I just had to shake his hand, because I’ve never done that,” said teammate Jonathon Simmons.

There are a lot of things he’s done over 15 NBA seasons that a lot had never done or even seen before he rode in like the bull from the Argentine pampas and expanded our world view of the game with his zig-zagging drives, hellbent attitude and mop of long-gone dark hair that danced as wildly as he played.

He’s been an All-Star, an Olympic champion, a virtual pinball that has hit the bumpers and made the scoreboard practically tilt as a key ingredient in four Spurs championships.

The Spurs have always needed him, but perhaps never so much as on Tuesday night to help pull out a 110-107 overtime win against the Rockets in Game 5 that gave them a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference semifinals.

Tim Duncan is retired. Point guard Tony Parker had been lost for the season a to torn quadriceps tendon in Game 2. Then small forward and MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard rolled his left ankle and couldn’t contribute down the stretch of the fourth quarter and all of overtime. Leonard was replaced by Ginobili at the 4:57 mark of regulation, left the game for good with 34.5 seconds to go and did not play at all in the overtime.

The Spurs needed a collective effort to survive and got it from the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Green, Patty Mills, Simmons and the rest. They also needed a scarred and tested veteran to show them how to avoid capsizing in the roiling waters.

“Manu reached back and gave us one of his Manu performances from past years. He was a stud.”

— Spurs coach Gregg Popovich

“Manu reached back and gave us one of his Manu performances from past years,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “He was a stud. We actually went to him with Kawhi off the court. We went to him to generate some offense and to make some things happen, and he did a good job whether it was distributing or scoring. He was big for us.”

Ginobili sometimes ran the offense, set up teammates and knew just when to turn a corner himself and make a play.

“I don’t feel like I had a huge game,” he said.

No. It was gigantic, gargantuan.

The stat line will show him shooting 5-for-11 for a dozen points, seven rebounds and five assists. Each one of those numbers is a playoff high this spring. The 31 1/2 minutes was his longest stint of playing time since Dec. 19, 2014.

“It was great to see,” said center Pau Gasol. “At this point in his career to take the leadership role, especially at the offensive end down the stretch. We obviously saw the last play with the block on Harden. He makes winning plays.”

In fact, Ginobili began these playoffs by going scoreless in four straight games, something that had never occurred even once before in the postseason. Then after Memphis had battled back to tie the series at 2-2, he lit the fuse with 10 points in another critical Game 5. In NBA history, teams that win Game 5 in a best-of-seven series are 162-34 (82 percent).

After that game against the Grizzlies, Mills was the one who said the venerable Ginobili knows how to bring the “grandpa juice,” whatever that is. Though nothing is official, the general sense is that this is his last go-round. He’s the oldest player left in the playoffs, but go tell him that.

“It’s hard not to be excited and full of adrenaline because it’s a Game 5 and you’re thrilled to be here,” Ginobili said. “And you feel also lucky, not only good to be here, because a lot of guys are watching it on TV. If you have the opportunity, you bring everything you have. So, today I had to play more minutes than usual because of their (small) lineup and because of Kawhi’s injury.”

He was switching out on defense, battling for tough rebounds, drawing fouls, finding a way to the basket.

“He did all of the little things that we needed him to do,” Green said. “We’re going to continue to need that from him, especially since we don’t know what’s going to happen with Kawhi.”

After Green missed one of a pair of free throws that could have iced it, Harden eventually found himself with the ball in his hands out on the left wing and drew a bead on the bucket.

Then Ginobili arrived, to remind that he’s not a memory just yet.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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