By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
DALLAS – Without the magic of Manu Ginobili in this first-round series being played at a maniacal fervor, the San Antonio Spurs, the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, could well be tied at the ankles with their their Eastern Conference brethren, teetering at the edge of the plank.
Ginobili’s 23 points and five assists against the relentless, eighth-seeded Dallas Mavericks, the bulk of which came during a 40-17 swing in the first half, was the razor-thin difference in yet another game that came down to the wire. The Spurs — down 10 early, up 20 in the third quarter and down again in the fourth — finally sealed Game 4, 93-89, with Ginobili free throws.
Even as he creeps closer to 37 years old in July, the acrobatic Argentine was at his whirling dervish best, knifing into the lane, Euro-stepping past 7-foot defenders and twisting in mid-air for brilliant backhand finishes at the right side of the rim, and then at the left. His 3-ball wasn’t hitting and his path to the rim got smothered for much of the second half, yet Ginobili managed to get to the free-throw line eight times in the final 24 minutes, more than any player on either team did all game.
The red scratches and bruises flared across his arms and back were proof of the price he paid to get to the line.
“It’s going to be a little sore for sure,” Ginobili said when asked how his body will feel when he awakes Tuesday morning. “But at least it’s going to be sore after a good effort and we won. It was sore yesterday too, with a bad mood, too. So, glad we won.”
Had they not, the Spurs would be right there with the Pacers on the brink of total disaster, two No. 1 seeds going down in flames. For San Antonio, they press on now with homecourt advantage restored and critical Game 5 coming up quickly on Wednesday night.
There is concern, however, that All-Star point guard Tony Parker will continue to be gimpy. He twisted his left ankle in the second quarter and play was uneven throughout. He managed to log 30 minutes, but scored just 10 points, including a clutch pull-up jumper with 1:37 left, with three assists.
He left the American Airlines Center with the ankle taped a limping slightly. He said he was unsure if he will undergo an MRI in San Antonio on Tuesday. “We’ll see tomorrow,” he said.
Beyond Parker’s status and blowing a quickly allowing a 20-point lead to whittle down to eight before completely evaporating in the fourth quarter, the positive outlook for San Antonio is it finally found a way to get bench help beyond Ginobili. Boris Diaw scored 17 points, was crucial in the third quarter with eight points and hit the decisive 3-pointer off a Parker dish with 32.9 seconds to go. Patty Mills contributed 10 points on 3-for-5 shooting.
Still, a significant story of the series is the rejuvenated Ginobili, who much of America probably remembers flinging bad passes, missing shots and, ultimately, questioning his own basketball mortality after the Spurs’ loss in the 2013 Finals.
Besieged by various injuries throughout last season, Ginobili contemplated retirement, never for too long or too intently, but he acknowledges that the questions did flicker in his mind: Is it time? Are all the injuries just too much?
He signed a two-year, $14.5 million contract and made the decision to skip international competition last season.
“He really took it to heart because he wasn’t whole during The Finals,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “That’s why for the first time he didn’t play overseas and he just lifted all summer, let his body recover and get stronger. It’s helped him a great deal so that he’s whole going into the playoffs this year. He wanted to do what he needed to do to be ready for his team and he did it.”
If he’s had to adjust his fearless, attacking style, it’s hard to tell. He’s the Spurs’ leading scorer in the first round at 19.8 ppg. He’s a tick behind Parker for the assists lead at 4.3, and he’s grabbing 4.0 rpg. He’s shooting 48.0 percent overall and 40.9 percent from 3-point range, going 9-for-22.
Most impressive is his driving statistics. He’s among the playoff leaders in getting to the rim, while by far being the oldest among the leaders. In this series he’s holding his own in terms of drives to the basket and scoring average with 28-year-old Monta Ellis, Dallas’ leading scorer.
“I know I’m not 27 anymore, but I am feeling much better than last season with my legs and confidence,” Ginobili said. “With the way they play ‘D,’ I’ve got to try to be more aggressive because shooters are not open in the corners as usual. I just think I had a bad season last year with injuries. This year I am taking more care of myself, doing more treatments. I’m going back to normality.”
In a series that’s gone bonkers, Ginobili has provided the stability that at least, for now, has the Spurs backing away from the edge of the plank.