For a while, it was like 2008 again. Manu Ginobili was whirling and dervishing all over the court, Tim Duncan was thunking home bank shots against helpless post defenders and LeBron James was curiously deferring to aging jump shooters and mediocre point guards.
As the Spurs built a 20-point lead in a win that gave them a 3-2 lead over the Heat in the NBA Finals, the masses on Twitter were already labeling Game 5 as “The Manu Game.”
As poorly as Ginobili played in the first four games of the finals, there is nothing wrong with giving the future Hall of Fame sixth man his day in the sun. The Spurs needed every single one of his season-high 24 points and 10 assists, especially when Ray Allen made them sweat when he caught fire late. Before anyone declares Ginobili “back” and treats a San Antonio title as academic, they should take a deep breath and recognize the sobering reality of Ginobili’s re-emergence.
Superficially on Sunday, Ginobili looked every bit as unpredictable and unguardable as he did in his prime. He beat defenders left with those long strides to draw fouls. He beat defenders right to loft a floater high off the glass. He hit enough one-handed runners and whipped enough passes barely past defenders’ ears to fill YouTube with all the old Ginobili-esque highlights.
A significant part of why Ginobili was able to make said defenders look so silly, however, had a lot to do with who said defenders were.
The Heat were well aware of Ginobili’s struggles in this series, so their defensive assignments on him for Game 5 were predictable. With Spurs coach Gregg Popovich inserting Ginobili in the starting lineup, the Heat were forced to stick the decrepit Mike Miller on Ginobili, who for all his faults remains more mobile than the average 35-year-old. Popovich also warped his rotation so Ginobili would be on the court for a key stretch in the third quarter against Norris Cole, and later against Allen. As much as announcers love fringe-rotation point guards in the playoffs (Hello, Derek Fisher!), Cole is terrible and Allen has never been known as a strong defender. Miller is less broken down than he was in last year’s playoffs, but only slightly.
If you are looking for a key to Ginobili’s breakout performance, there it is. His step-back jumper over James was a legitimate sign the Spurs might be on to something, and his ability to shed defenders off screens suggested he may continue to cause problems for the Heat. Even though the Heat checked him with inferior defenders, Ginobili still needed to make the plays, something he was unable to do in games one through four.
Still, there are potentially two more long games ahead. We predicted at least one sort of performance like this from Ginobili, after all. Until Ginobili provides further evidence to the contrary, his offensive outburst in Game 5 is mostly a referendum on Heat coach Erik Spoelstra’s inability to make in-game adjustments against a scorching hot all-time great experiencing one last night of brilliance.
Give Ginobili his due. As badly as he has played overall in this series, though, he has to do more than have one above-average game before we let him off the hook — or assume this was more than a fluke.