SAN ANTONIO -- Until you have experienced life in the south central part of Texas, you can't properly understand the hold the Spurs have on the people here, nor can you grasp just how significant Manu Ginobili is as a unifying figure. The signs from the buildings in town all say Go Spurs Go in keeping with their decentralized team-first approach, but the t-shirts, by and large, say ‘Ginobili' on the back.
In any other city, Manu would have been ripped non-stop on talk radio and the TV talk shows. Sure, there was angst over his anemic 7.5 points per game and nonexistent three-point shot. There were even harsh columns in the Express-News. But the tone was more concern than blame. That's how things work down here.
"We're not a team or an organization that points fingers," Tim Duncan said. "I know it's on the media to find out what's wrong with everybody, what happened whatever game, but he's such a huge part of what we do."
Facing what was basically a must-win game with the series headed back to Miami, Gregg Popovich called on Ginobili to help match up with the Heat's small lineup and Manu reached deep into his archives to deliver some of that old magic. He hit threes and made the right passes. He flummoxed Miami's interior defense with his impossible one-handed floaters.
For one inspiring evening, he was Manu again and the high-energy crowd serenaded him with chants of "MANU! MANU!"
''I was angry, disappointed,'' Ginobili said. ''We are playing in the NBA Finals, we were 2-2, and I felt I still wasn't really helping the team that much. And that was the frustrating part.''
It was beautiful, really, watching Ginobili play to his crowd. The Spurs were never so Spursian. Their five starters scored 107 of their 114 points and no one took more than 15 shots. It was also fitting that in a series that has seen a little bit of everything, we finally got a vintage Ginobili performance in what could be his final home game as a Spur. His contract is up at the end of the season and while it's unthinkable to picture the Spurs without Manu and vice versa, you just never know.
They all had a part in this, from Danny Green's red-hot shooting, to Tony Parker's carefully orchestrated floor game, Kawhi Leonard's efficient 16 and 8 and Duncan's artful post moves, but this was Manu's game. He scored 24 points to go with 10 assists and scored seven of the first 15 points and assisted on three others.
"I told you Manu was going to play good," Parker gently chided the local scribes. "You didn't believe me."
Honestly, how could they? Twenty-four hours ago Ginobili was once again floating the idea of retirement. He stopped himself, almost in mid-thought, but clearly his poor performances were weighing heavily on his mind.
"I knew that I was not scoring much and I felt it in the air," he said. "But I tried not to care about it. I know I'm critical enough of myself to be worrying about what other people say."
On Saturday, Popovich decided he would start Ginobili ahead of Tiago Splitter. With Miami's decision to go small, his hand was forced anyway. Splitter lasted 47 seconds in Game 4 before Pop went to Gary Neal. He was coy in the pregame when asked about a lineup switch. "Maybe," he said although his tone gave it away. This was his last move, the one he always makes when the Spurs are in dangerous territory.
"You know, everybody was behind him," Parker said. "I defended him the whole time. I was feeling a big game for Manu. I've been playing with him for a long time. I said this morning it's a great opportunity for Manu. I was happy when Pop put him in the starting five, because you can get a rhythm. And the fact that they're playing defense so high on me and Timmy, I felt that Manu would be easier to gain for him. Because every time he comes off the bench and the whole focus, they play defense on him because I'm out and Timmy is out."
Parker has a point. With Ginobili on the court with the other starters, the Heat had to adjust to him. They couldn't afford to focus their entire defensive efforts on one player with so many other threats. It's part of the reason why Green has found himself so open, setting a new Finals record for threes, breaking Ray Allen's mark from 2008.
While the Spurs led wire to wire and by as many as 20 points, for once we had a thrilling, competitive game. Dwyane Wade came to play again and was arguably Miami's best player with 25 points and 10 assists. LeBron James recorded a 25-6-8 line, although there were odd moments of settling when matched up with immovable object Boris Diaw.
This wasn't the Heat at their best, but they were very, very good and they kept coming back on San Antonio, slicing a huge second quarter lead to single digits by halftime and cutting it to a single point with 3:05 left in the third. That's when Manu took over.
He knocked down jumpers and floaters. He threaded a gorgeous pass to Splitter for a layup and buried another right before the quarter ended to push the lead back to a dozen points as the crowd roared its appreciation. There was one more minor scare late in the game when Ray Allen zipped into his own time machine. The Heat got it down to eight, but the Spurs had the answers one more time.
San Antonio did what it had to do at home, taking two out of three and giving itself a chance to claim another title. The pressure shifts back to Miami for Game 6, but really it weighs heavily on both teams. Few people, if any, picked the Spurs to win in 7 because it's just so damn hard to win the final game on the road.
We've seen a little bit of everything in this series and now with both teams operating at a high level we finally have reached the point in the series we all came down here to witness. This will be high-stakes basketball with legacies and careers on the line. The adjustments have been made, the stars have had their moments and the redemption tales have been written. It will take an incredible effort to win this series.
"It don't matter if you are up, you need one more win or you're out," James said. "You can't sleep, especially at this point."
As we leave San Antonio, we're left with a stirring reminder of how wonderful this sport can be, trite as that sounds, and the enduring image of a player and city still in love with one another after all these years.