SAN ANTONIO — The way Tony Parker sees it, his teammate Manu Ginobili might be playing a rope-a-dope until the start of The Finals.
“I still feel like Manu is saving his best for last,” said the point guard who has spearheaded the Spurs’ drive through the playoffs.
While Parker has been splendid and 37-year-old Tim Duncan asserting himself in spurts, Ginobili has struggled to display his old form through the regular season and the playoffs.
Ginobili missed 22 games during the regular season in which an assortment of injuries to his hamstring, calf and back held him down to a career low of 11.8 points per game on 42.5 percent shooting. The hamstring injury kept him off the court down the stretch of the regular season and barely enabled him to be minimally effective in the first round against the Lakers.
“It is great to have this opportunity to keep playing,” Ginobili said following Sunday’s practice. “I feel better. If we had lost in the first round, I wasn’t even back (right) after three weeks resting and sitting. If you lose four games in that round, you go home feeling bad about the whole season.
“But since the way things have turned out now, to tell you the truth, I even forgot about the regular season. I am feeling good now. We are in the Finals. Who cares? Nobody’s gonna remember I missed 20 games in the regular season. This is a great way to finish it. Hopefully, we can win four more.”
The continuing physical setbacks were a surprise even to a 35-year-old playing his 11th NBA season.
“I felt really good in traing camp,” Ginobili said. “I was coming from the Olympics in great shape. Then I got the first problem and everything started to get screwed up. Now though, I’m feeling good, I’m energetic and excited to be here.”
In the Spurs’ 14 playoff games, Ginobili is still averaging just 11.5 points and his shooting has dropped to 38.3 percent. However, he has played an instrumental, if inconsistent, role in helping San Antonio get a crack at a fifth championship for the franchise. In the Western Conference semifinals, Ginobili hit the game-winning 3-pointer to beat Golden State in the epic double-overtime Game 1. He also dealt 11 assists in two games of that series. While he shot 1-for-6 with six turnovers in the sweep-clinching win over Memphis in the Western Conference finals, Ginobili also handed out six assists and battled for six rebounds against the rugged Grizzlies.
Duncan has talked this spring about having a different, deeper appreciation for the Spurs playoff run as a long-time veteran who can see the finish line of his career approaching.
Ginobili, who will become a free agent this summer, told Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News that he he wants to play one more season and hopes that it will be in San Antonio.
“I am not planning on retiring,” he said.
His teammates know that Ginobili’s value cannot be expressed by shooting percentages or sheer statistics.
“Just having him on the court for us is a world of difference,” said Duncan. “Whether he’s making shots or not, he generates things. He makes plays — takes charges, gets into the lane and disrupts what teams are doing. Just having that on the court in itself, even if he doesn’t make a shot, is huge.”
“Manu is one of the ultimate competitors in our league and has been for a long time,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich “He’s a big factor winning games, winning championships. He’s very important to what we do.”
That’s why there is virtually no question that the Spurs will want him, need him, back for a 12th season, though it’s generally understood that he’ll earn far less than the $14.01-million that made Ginobili the highest-paid player on the team in 2012-13.
That will also be welcome news throughout San Antonio, where Ginobili’s hellbent style of throwing his body all over the court quickly made him popular and over more than a decade has made him beloved.
“I completely love what I do and I think people can tell,” he said. “Even though I can start to see the end of the road, it’s hard to really imagine being a retired player because I really love what I do.
“I enjoy the locker room before the games. i even enjoy it after a loss, just the camaraderie to stay together, to go to dinner and talk about what we’ve done wrong. To feel like somebody supports you and you support somebody. You try to get over humps. It’s a really a great feeling and one you’re probably never going to have it again once you retire.”