When Manu Ginobili ever decides to retire from the NBA, he’ll go down in basketball history as one of the greatest to play the game. He’s a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer who belongs on the Mt. Rushmore of international players who changed the NBA landscape, a short list that includes Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol, and Tony Parker.
Ginobili is arguably one of the most popular players in the world, and only Pope Francis is more popular in his native country of Argentina. And even that is debatable.
But even the pope has some bad days, and Ginobili is a bit out of sync in the 2013 NBA Finals.
After a 13-point performance in Game 1, Ginobili has scored just 17 points in the last three games. He was 2-for-6 (five points) in Game 2, 3-for-7 (seven points) in Game 3, and 1-for-5 (five points) in Game 4. He also hasn’t hit a 3-point shot since Game 2.
So what’s wrong with Ginobili?
“If I knew I would have fixed it by now,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.
Ginobili credits the Miami Heat’s aggressive defense as part of the reason for his struggles, but age and playoff mileage may be creeping up on him, too.
“Father Time is on his back,” TNT and NBA TV analyst Charles Barkley said. “He’s not even looking at the basket. I’ve never seen my man that passive.”
What makes Ginobili so special is his ability to create something out of nothing. He is a master of improvisation. It’s a unique skill only a handful of players in the NBA possess. He has shown flashes of it in the 2013 playoffs.
He did it earlier in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Golden State Warriors, a game that could go down as one of the greatest playoff games in NBA history. Basketball superfan Jimmy Goldstein tweeted: “I have attended more than 4000 NBA games, but I just witnessed one of the greatest games that I have ever seen. #Spurs.”
Ginobili’s clutch 3-pointer from the wing with 1.2 seconds left in double overtime lifted the Spurs to a thrilling 129-127 victory over the Warriors despite 44 points from NBA phenom Stephen Curry.
Prior to his winning play, Ginobili had been 4-for-19 from the field and badly missed his last two 3-pointers. But his confidence never wavered. He’s stubborn enough to think that he can make a play no matter how poorly he’s playing. All the great closers possess this skill. Kobe Bryant has it and Michael Jordan had it.
The game-winning shot came 43.7 seconds after Ginobili took an ill-advised 3 that appeared to cost the Spurs the game.
”I went from wanting to trade him on the spot to wanting to cook breakfast for him tomorrow morning,” Popovich said. ”That’s the truth. When I talk to him and say, ‘Manu,’ he goes, ‘This is what I do.’ That’s what he’s going to tell me. I stopped coaching him a long time ago.”
Popovich doesn’t need to give a rah-rah speech to make the man who introduced the Euro Step to the NBA understand that he needs to play better. Ginobili is a proud individual with a heart of champion, and he always seems to find a way to impact the game.
“I wish I could score more. But it’s not happening. If the shot is not falling, I’ve got to be sharp feeding the bigs and finding the shooters. I don’t have to force the issue,” said Ginobili, who is in the final year of his contract and turns 36 this July. Even though he’d like to play one or two more years, this could be his last ride.
“All season long I kind of knew that I was going to play one or two more years,” he said. “But when you are 36 — I’m going to be 36 pretty soon — everything is a day-by-day basis. Once the season finishes and I see how I feel, I can’t imagine me not playing at least one more year here, but time will tell. We’ll see.”
Tony Parker and Tim Duncan know how important Ginobili is to their title hopes and they’re not about to give up on the man who helped them win championships in 2003, 2005, and 2007.
“He’s very angry at himself, very frustrated with himself,” Duncan said of Ginobili, who joined the Spurs in 2002 after a very successful run with Italian League power Kinder Bologna where he won the Euroleague title in 2001 and named MVP. Prior to Ginobili’s arrival in San Antonio, the Spurs had been bounced out of the playoffs by the L.A. Lakers in 2001 and 2002.
“I have a lot of confidence in Manu,” Parker said. “He came through for us all of these years. I have faith that he’ll have a big game. I trust him because I’ve been playing with him for a long time.”
Make no mistake about it, the Spurs will only go as far as Ginobili takes them. Duncan may be the heart and soul of the Spurs and Parker may be the team’s MVP, but Ginobili is the spark that ignites them to great heights. His value to the team can’t be measured by mere statistics. He is the ultimate X-factor that you can’t account for.
Joel Huerto is the editor and publisher of OneManFastBreak.net. Follow him on Twitter @onemanfastbreak.