SAN ANTONIO -- Manu Ginobili, that wondrous mix of basketball genius and ferocious competitor, has been absent during the Finals. As we focus so much on the Heat and especially Dwyane Wade's inconsistent play, Ginobili's descent has slid under the radar even though his issues are even more pronounced. He's averaging just 7.5 points and three assists and his shot looks flat and way offline. While there have been flashes here and there, Manu hasn't looked much like Manu at all.
This isn't new. Ginobili has suffered through a hit-or-miss postseason with a handful of solid outings mixed in with many more ineffective ones. His last great game was back in Game 3 of the conference finals, when he went for 19-7-5 in a win over the Grizzlies. His decline has been unnerving to watch unfold and it began after he suffered a hamstring injury in March.
"Well, of course I am (concerned)," Gregg Popovich said. "He's having a tough playoffs, and he hasn't really found a rhythm or found his game yet. I think that he's obviously not as confident as usual, and he knows full well that he hasn't performed the way he would like and the way he's used to. But it's simplistic to say, what are we going to do to get him going? He's going to get himself going or he won't. He knows that he's got to play better for us to be successful."
Ginobili remains a crafty passer on the perimeter and he was instrumental in helping the Spurs win Game 3 in a blowout, particularly when Tony Parker was dealing with his own hamstring issue. His instincts are as sharp as ever in that regard, and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra pointed to the "trigger passes" that yielded open jump shots for Danny Green and Gary Neal. Even in his weakened state, there is always a sense that Ginobili is just a play or two away from recapturing his old magic, and the Heat are well aware of that possibility.
"We've always looked at him very similar to our guy, to Dwyane," Spoelstra said. "And what makes him probably most dangerous is the unpredictability, his ability to be aggressive and do things on the court that aren't necessarily scripted. That's where he's most dangerous. He's tough to gameplan for."
In a series that has introduced a new hero each night, the time is right for Ginobili to have at least one vintage Manu game on Sunday in the Spurs' final home game of the series. There is also the possibility that this could be it for Ginobili in a San Antonio uniform.
The moment of reckoning is coming soon. He will be a free agent on July 1 and while the Spurs are well-positioned to afford a reasonable extension, they have never been the most sentimental organization. This is the team that cut Stephen Jackson on the eve of the playoffs.
What would be fair value for Ginobili? He's played less than 100 games over the last two seasons and been on the court for a little more than 2,000 minutes. When healthy, he was still quietly effective during the regular season, but he'll be 36 years old next season and his kamikaze style has clearly taken a toll on his body.
With Parker and Tim Duncan signed for the next two seasons, that's the realistic window to keep the Spurs in business of being the Spurs, and Ginobili's value extends beyond the usual contours of the bottom line business of basketball.
"Well, the continuity I think breeds trust, it breeds camaraderie, it breeds a feeling of responsibility that each member holds towards the other," Popovich said. "The ability to be excited for each other's success, not to develop territory and walls, but to stay participatory. To be able to discuss, to argue and come out at the end on the same page with the same passion and the same goals. And I think without continuity that's pretty impossible, because all the immediate tendencies of instant success starts to take over and that just breeds failure."
Popovich was talking about the lifecycle of coaches, but there's an interesting subtext there. They are who they are because of what they've been through together and simply plugging another player into their system isn't always as easy as they make it seem. If Ginobili were to leave, he would take a large piece of their soul with them.
The Spurs without Ginobili are almost as unthinkable as the team without Pop or Duncan. He has always been the wild one in the system, the one who can create something from nothing on his own and brings an element of imaginative chaos when it's needed most. If he can't do that anymore, then he's essentially just another backup guard, which is an incredibly depressing thought.
The connection between Pop and Manu is an interesting one. The coach's battles with Parker in the early days are well known and he obviously has no problem getting on Duncan's case. But in Ginobili, Popovich sees a kindred spirit.
"If anybody is crazy in the group, it's me," Popovich said. "They pretty much have an even keel. Timmy Duncan sets the tone, and he just competes. Whether he does well or whether he does poorly, game in, game out, year in, year out, he competes and people just follow that. Tony Parker is basically the same breed. Manu is a little bit more emotional, as I am. He's been doing this so long that he understands the wins in some ways are a relief."
There's always been a sense of fear mixed with the joy that Ginobili brings to the game. He lives on the edge, and more often than not, he's thrived on that thin line. There'd be no better time than Sunday for him to find his game.