He comes off the screen at the top of the key, cuts right, then does a pivot back left, ducks under the outstretched arm of a defender, goes up and knocks down a jump shot where he is leaning to one side like a telephone that’s been pushed over in a hurricane.
While one of the frustrated opponents is still shaking his head and trying to throw an inbounds pass to go the other way, there he is reaching in with one arm to make a deflection, then a steal, then one of those out-of-control-looking drives along the baseline that looks like it’s being down on ice skates and winds up at the foul line shooting free throws.
Manu Ginobili is back to his old tricks.
That was never quite a sure thing after a playoff run last spring that was mostly downhill. It was one thing to put up the worst postseason numbers of his 11-year NBA career. It was another entirely to finish up The Finals with 12 turnovers in the last two games of the painful, giveaway loss to the Heat.
The Spurs wasted little time in letting him know that they still had faith, offering up a two-year contract worth $14 million and Ginobili did not hesitate to commit himself for two more years with Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. But none of that meant that he’d actually be able to bounce back like this.
More than a third of the way through the season, Ginobili is averaging 12 points, 4.4 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game. As important, he’s regained his shooting touch and his confidence, his verve and creativity. After making shots at a clip of just 42.5 percent a year ago — the second worst season of his career — Ginobili is hitting 47.4 percent now, his second best ever.
“I just feel fresher, feel better, feel like I can do all of the things on the floor that I want to do without worrying about injuries or something that restricts me after recovering from a surgery,” he said. “At 36, it is not always going to be as easy to play as it was when you were 26. But I believe that as long as nothing happens, I can take care of myself to still be effective.”
Of course, it is not routine effectiveness that the Spurs want or need from Ginobili, but that firecracker-in-the-silverware-drawer explosiveness and unpredictability that makes him almost impossible to guard. Defenders can’t stop him from going where he wants because Manu rarely knows himself until he gets halfway there.
In the past few seasons, there have been many of the old flashes that lasted for only days or weeks. However, injuries to his ankles or elbows or any other moving part kept taking him to the sideline for another round of healing and rehab that would begin the comeback process all over again. He’s missed 48 and 22 games over the past two seasons to an assortment of dings and bangs, but has sat out only one time this season when coach Gregg Popovich gave all his veterans the night off at the end of a western trip at Golden State.
“He’s playing better now than he did at the end of last season,” Popovich said. “Part of it is he didn’t play (last) summer for the first time in a bazillion years. He’s had a lot of miles when you consider how many times he’s playing in Europe.
“He used a strength and conditioning coach all summer to get stronger and build his body up a bit. As far as his strength and readiness to play, this is the best he’s been in a couple of years. We’re hoping that will continue.”
While the Spurs have struggled against the teams in the upper echelon of the Western Conference so far, those problems are for the most part on the defensive end and they have a belief that those holes can be patched with so much time left on the schedule. But having Ginobili close to his best level and delivering consistently was an ingredient the Spurs weren’t sure they could count on in the mix.
Based on the ragged, skidding-off-the-freeway jalopy that was losing oil and fenders just six months ago in The Finals, it was difficult to envision Ginobili humming down the road in one piece now. That’s why there was even some outcry from loyalists in San Antonio when the team made another two-year commitment to Ginobili.
Yet here he is forcing his way into the conversation for the Sixth Man of the Year Award that he won in 2008. While he is back to being unpredictable with the ball in his hands, Ginobili has been dependable nightly for the Spurs, missing double figure scoring just four times in 18 games over the past month.
“I did think about not coming back to play,” he said. “But only at the times during last season and in the playoffs when my body was not healthy and I couldn’t do everything that I wanted. That is when the game is not fun.
“So far, I feel healthy. I feel good. I feel like I can do all of the things that are necessary to help the team.”
Manu being Manu, as the Spurs like to say. Effectively unpredictable, which based on last June, could hardly have been predicted.