- Series Hub: Spurs-Heat
SAN ANTONIO — The two-day buildup — a wait Spurs coach Gregg Popovich says was “like death” — certainly seemed a slow, uncomfortable march toward an unexpected funeral. It was the sudden end of the road for beloved family member Manu Ginobili.
Turns out the vibe was all wrong.
Sunday night exploded into a big, fat Argentine wedding. There was dancing and singing and celebrating and chants of “Manu! Manu!” The AT&T Center roared with the atmosphere of a welcomed revival and the deliverance of sweet redemption for Ginobili, the San Antonio Spurs’ Game 5 hero.
Just as LeBron James and especially Dwyane Wade had risen to claim Game 4, as if on cue or following this weird Finals script, Ginobili set the Game 5 tone in his first start in more than a year. And now it’s the Spurs who are on the brink of a fourth title in 10 years and a fifth in 15 with the 114-104 victory for a 3-2 series lead.
And just about 72 hours after James and the Heat seemed to suck the life out of San Antonio in this wildly unpredictable series, may the never-ending referendum on James’ legacy resume with he and the Heat on the ropes.
Just a day earlier, Ginobili had stood behind a podium and a microphone on the same arena floor. The word retirement spilled from his mouth. Even if it was only because of the gathering frustration within him, incapable of articulating, or even understanding, his own demise in this postseason. Maybe it was just dejection that he wasn’t shouldering his load with this long-awaited opportunity at another, possibly the last, championship at stake.
“He did seem dejected,” Tim Duncan said. “He’s a competitor, an extreme competitor. And he wants to play well and he wants to help our team do well. Just like a lot of us, we lose games and we take the blame for it. He’s just the same way and he wanted to play well really badly.”
Popovich, either desperate to jumpstart his longstanding sixth man or countering the Miami Heat’s revamped, smaller starting lineup — Pop claimed both — told the 6-foot-5 Ginobili on Saturday that he’d start. Just weeks from turning 36, he would be in the starting lineup for the first time since Pop shook things up in the elimination Game 6 of the West finals more than a year ago.
The Spurs’ first possession was designed for Tony Parker, but Ginobili took the shot — banging in a 22-footer, a step-back jumper initially ruled a 3-pointer but knocked down to a 2 after a video review. Then came a pass to sizzling Danny Green for an easy layup, and on the next possession he dished to Duncan for a dunk. Then came the first two of his eight free-throw attempts. In the opening two minutes of crucial Game 5, Ginobili had already been as active and as impactful as at any point in the series.
He never stopped scorching Miami with the full Manu Platter: executing one-on-one dribble penetrations, well-timed kick-outs and classic Ginobili awkward finishes around the rim to bury the Heat with a killer double-double. He finished with a season-high 24 points on 8-for-14 shooting and 10 assists in 33 electric minutes. He had had 17 points and nine assists in the last three games combined.
With 2:21 left in the third quarter, and Ginobili on another mini-tear that broke open a 75-74 lead that had been whittled down from 17 in the first half, the chants of “Manu! Manu!” flooded the arena of 18,581. So many wearing his No. 20 jersey, unprepared and unwilling to say goodbye to Ginobili for the last time.
“I needed it,” Ginobili said. “I was having a tough time scoring and I needed to feel like the game was coming to me and I was being able to attack the rim, get to the free-throw line and make a couple of shots. So it felt great when I heard that [the chant]. To feel that I really helped my team to get that 20-point lead, it was a much-needed moment in the series.”
The Spurs never trailed, but the sold-out house seemed to hold its breath as the Heat continued to mount counter-attacks. When it got to be 75-74, it felt like the scales might tip. They did, back to San Antonio. Green, now the all-time leader for 3-pointers in Finals history, hit another big one to make it 78-74.
Ginobili followed with a fabulous baseline drive around Ray Allen for a three-point play, and on the next possession he blew by Norris Cole for a floater to make it 83-74. The next trip down he whipped a pass into the lane for Tiago Splitter, who not only managed to hold onto the pass but also finished with a layup and the run was 10-0.
It would balloon to 19-1 and the crowd roared and Ginobili felt fulfilled and the Spurs empowered to win one more and win it all. When the series shifts back to South Florida on Tuesday night, the Larry O’Brien Trophy will be in the house.
“I needed to feel more important, more of a threat attacking the rim,” Ginobili said. “It was good to see it happen.”
If he can do it again, Sunday’s Game 5 party will have nothing on what’s to come.