SAN ANTONIO -- He turns 36 next month, and in Manu Ginobili years that's more like 46. The body and joints are becoming bald from all the heavy basketball mileage, having gone through 11 NBA seasons and deep playoff runs and don't forget dozens of international tournaments for dear old Argentina.
But don't cry for him, San Antonio. At least not anymore. Ginobili decided Sunday he wasn't going out like that, like a stumbling has-been, like a ghost in these NBA Finals. He was all of the above until Game 5, when he finally awakened and treated the Heat like he did Team USA in the 2004 Olympics. It was an ambush then, and also now.
"I told you Manu was going to play well," said Parker, tweaking everyone who saw Ginobili implode for two months. "You didn't believe me."
And so the lone missing factor for the Spurs was finally accounted for, Ginobili helping to lift them to a 114-104 victory with 24 points (double his playoff average) and pushing the Heat, outplayed and outcoached, closer to the cliff. The Spurs will have two chances in Miami to win one game, chances that will be instantly enhanced if this performance from Ginobili turns out to be more than a mercy gift from the basketball gods.
A series that has flip-flopped more than a Presidential candidate is now firmly in the Spurs' grip, right? Um, not exactly. Haven't you been watching this insanity? The next game is nothing like the previous one. Blowouts and beat-downs have gone both ways. Momentum doesn't last beyond the final buzzer. What you see one night is not what you'll get the next.
Which, of course, spells doom for Ginobili, if this pattern keeps up, because then it's back to the bottom for him, and more retirement talk from him. One uplifting effort doesn't mean he's back and the bad days are suddenly beneath him.
"We need him to do it one more time," said Tim Duncan. "We need all of us to show up and play well."
Ginobili made the Spurs a complete team, that's what he did Sunday. Until then, the third wheel in the Big 3 equation was Danny Green or Kawhi Leonard, who've been quality replacements, but the Spurs are just a bit more dangerous when Ginobili is breathing. He hit his first two shots, scored seven points in the first seven minutes, caused bedlam inside the AT&T Center and turned Pop into a genius.
"I just had a better game," Ginobili said. "I'm not sure it was because I started. It just happened. I played with Tony more, so I was off the ball in more situations. I attacked better, got to the free throw line a bit more, and those things combined to get me going."
Ginobili is a civic treasure in this town, beloved for his fearless attitude, foreign flair, quirky style of play and appetite for big moments, and that's why this post-season has been torture for everyone. Aside from a game-winning shot against the Warriors, Ginobili was not only not helping the Spurs, he hurt them. Plenty of times. All told, 37 percent shooting wasn't cutting it, along with all the bad decisions, and so he left Spurs coach Gregg Popovich with no choice.
Pop elevated Ginobili to the starting lineup for Game 5. Why, sure. Of course.
It was the only card left in Popovich's deck, at this point. Ginobili is a natural sixth man who started only seven games over the last two seasons but Pop wanted to get him involved quicker and have him next to Duncan and Parker from the get-go. It also didn't hurt for Ginobili to go through the introductions, to hear the love, which on this night was thicker than Boris Diaw.
When the shots began to fall, from deep, off the dribble, helped by screens, the chants came heavy and hard: "Man-new." It was an emotional release from a crowd that never once booed Ginobili when he was MIA in Games 3 and 4, never once forgot what he has meant to the franchise, to the championship years, to the city.
"The bond" is what Popovich called the relationship between fans and fan-favorite. "He's been here a long time. He's helped us have a lot of success over the years. One can imagine that, since he speaks the language of a lot of people who live here, it endears him even more."
Ginobili makes the Spurs that much deeper than Miami when he's playing with a purpose and the shots are falling. Suddenly, the Spurs are bringing a variety of weapons. Inside buckets with Duncan, pick and rolls with Parker and jumpers by Green (24 points in Game 5 to reclaim the lead in Finals scoring). It's also about defense as well, with Ginobili giving the Spurs another layer against LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
Then again, it's also about sustainability, something that only a few players have managed in this series: Green, Parker (26 points) and LeBron, to an extent. Can anyone else string together a pair of impact games? Can a team win back to back?
Popovich obviously made the right call in elevating Ginobili but a better one was putting Diaw on LeBron for generous stretches, especially in the second half, where he made only two baskets (in 11 tries). On the surface, it seemed like a mismatch: LeBron is stronger and quicker, while Diaw is doughy. Diaw is also one of the smarter players in basketball and he didn't give LeBron an inch. Popovich was troubled by LeBron pounding the Spurs in the paint in Game 4 on frequent post-ups and had to find a better option than Tiago Splitter. Hey, not only was it Father's Day, it was Pop's Day.
"Boris was being physical with him in the post," said Leonard. "They are about the same size. He did a great job."
And now we get to see what the Heat have left. Can Erik Spoelstra rebound from the lashing he took from Popovich? Spoelstra for some reason didn't play Chris Andersen for the second straight game. The small lineup worked in Game 4 but when Pop countered by going small with Ginobili, Spoelstra didn't have a counter-move and kept Birdman caged.
Can we expect a monster Game 6 from LeBron? Imagine the embarrassment of being locked up defensively by an overweight forward masquerading as a backup center. Somewhere, Michael Jordan snickers.
"We look forward to the challenge," LeBron said. "We've been there before."
What the series has taught is not to trust anything, not our eyes or our instinct. The Spurs are up but Miami is home. No one can win two straight but just when something seems unlikely in the NBA Finals, it happens.
Hey, Ginobili just rose from the dead. So there's hope for LeBron against Diaw.