by Mike Seely
"What's wrong with Manu?"
Gregg Popovich and Manu Ginobili had to be plenty tired of those four words by the time they arrived at the AT&T Center Sunday night, as the media — en masse — uncorked a question they'd been reticent to ask after yet another putrid performance Thursday night from the Spurs' aging super-sub. Ginobili had been such a gamer for so long that he was afforded more rope than most stars; only after his struggles continued through the mid-point of this Finals series did the harshest of queries come. And when it came, it was a thunderstorm.
But as Ginobili's skeptics parroted one another, he, his coach and his teammates calmly reassured critics that Manu would surely break out — it was only a matter of when. Well, "when" came Sunday, as Ginobili went bonkers for a season-high 24 points to go with 10 assists in a brilliant 114-104 Spurs win, sending the series back to Miami with the Heat forced to win back-to-back games at home in order to defend their title.
As stunning as Ginobili's ability to recapture his elite form was, even more flabbergasting was Popovich's decision to start him in place of Tiago Splitter. Ginobili hadn't started all year, but his insertion into the starting five not only proved to be the kick in the rump he needed, it also allowed an ailing Tony Parker to frequently relinquish ball-handling duties to the Argentinian — a capable, if occasionally reckless, playmaker — and proved the perfect counter to Miami's decision to go small in Game 4.
Ginobili wasn't the only Spur who excelled. Whereas, up until Game 5, the Spurs' Big Three had come up anything but, on Sunday they had a veritable Big Five, with their starters combining for 104 points. Danny Green (24 points, 6-10 threes) eclipsed Ray Allen's mark for three-pointers in a series while continuing his torrid shooting in the series, and Kawhi Leonard chipped in 16 points, eight rebounds and three steals while playing lockdown defense on LeBron James (8-22 from the field) in the second half. And let's not forget about Parker, who played through a bum hamstring to lead all scorers with 26 on a very LeBron-like (except for this series) 10-14 shooting night from the floor.
The Spurs would obviously love to steal Tuesday night's tilt in Miami to close out the series, but this is the sort of matchup that deserves to go seven games. The ball movement, defensive tenacity, and ingenious tinkering by the men in ties have veered close to basketball perfection, and the lack of smack-talking between opposing players makes it clear how much these two teams respect one another. With apologies to the Oklahoma City Thunder and New York Knicks, a Finals matchup between those two teams would have featured possession after possession of iso-hero ball, with Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony pump-faking viewers into a collective coma. What these playoffs — and, in particular, this series — have been is a victory for basketball as its forefathers envisioned it, only at a level of athleticism they could have never imagined.