|Ginobili, who turns 35 in July, has put 17 years of professional basketball miles on his body. (US Presswire)|
SAN ANTONIO -- It might not happen again for Manu Ginobili. Not in this series. Not in these playoffs, however long they last for the San Antonio Spurs. Maybe not ever again. Ginobili was the best player Sunday night in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, the best player for either team, but don't expect to see that again.
Don't get me wrong -- it was no fluke. Ginobili has been one of the better players in the NBA for years. When he's good, he's great. Sunday night, he was good. So he was great.
But games like Sunday's don't happen much anymore because his body betrays him. He has put a lot of basketball miles on that body, which turns 35 in July. He turned pro at age 17 in Argentina, and for nearly two decades he has routinely played a year-round schedule because of his loyalty to the Argentine national team.
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Those have been hard minutes because of the way he plays. Some players treat their bodies like luxury cars and slip into cruise control. They coast. They glide. Not Ginobili. He treats his body like a monster truck -- he attacks, he crashes. He has been a professional basketball player for 18 years, and those have been hard years. Dog years. His body is 34, going on 35, going on 70. In basketball years, Ginobili is ancient.
That's why the Spurs can't count on another game from him like they got Sunday night, which happened to be his best game all season. He scored 26 points, a season high. He played 34 minutes, a season high. He had five rebounds and three assists.
In the fourth quarter, when the Spurs were turning a nine-point deficit into a 10-point lead -- before a meaningless flurry of 3-pointers from the Thunder cut the Spurs' ultimate victory margin to 101-98 -- Ginobili scored 11 points.
Ginobili scored those 11 fourth-quarter points in less than six minutes, hoisting the Spurs onto his back and matching Kevin Durant point for point as the NBA scoring leader tried to take over down the stretch. He might even have succeeded were it not for Ginobili, who was attacking the rim and getting to the foul line and scoring, scoring, scoring.
How did this old man do it? Don't ask the old man. He averaged 12.9 points this season, his lowest total since his second year in the league back in 2004. He had topped 20 points only once in the Spurs' first eight playoff games. He topped 20 only nine times all season. He'll get his points from time to time, but don't ask him when it'll happen. And when it does happen, don't ask him how. This is what he'll say -- or at least, this is what he said after scoring 26 points Sunday night:
"It just happened," Ginobili said. "I don't know how exactly because I haven't scored like this all season long, but it happened and I am very happy about it."
See? He has no idea how he did it, or how his body allowed him to do it. Already this season he has missed large clumps of games twice, once because of a broken hand and another time because of an injured oblique muscle. And those aren't even his bad injuries.
His ankles are ravaged, suffering sprains over the years that are so much worse than they sound. An ankle sprain? Sounds minor, and it can be. Or it can be devastating, if the sprain is bad enough. A bad sprain stretches the ligament like a rubber band -- and like a rubber band, those ligaments never return to their original strength. Once you sprain an ankle like Ginobili has sprained both of his, the player is never the same. The explosiveness, the quickness? Like Bruce Springsteen said in Glory Days, "They're gone, boys, and they ain't coming back."
So you could ask the guy Ginobili abused Sunday night, Thunder guard James Harden, how this happened. Not that he'd know, either.
"He's just left-handed and crafty," Harden said.
Translation: Don't ask me how he did it. But he did it.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks didn't enjoy it Sunday night, but he appreciates Ginobili's game, his words after Game 1 making that clear.
"Ginobili was terrific tonight, guys," Brooks said. "He finds cracks you don't think it's even possible. He figures it out to get in there and get through our guys. We have to do a better job of corralling him, making him shoot tougher shots."
Well, hold on. Not sure that's possible, because Ginobili hit some tough shots -- including one of the toughest shots anyone has hit during the 2012 NBA playoffs. It was the final play of the first quarter, Ginobili curling off a screen and catching a pass from Matt Bonner with two seconds left, his momentum carrying him away from the basket, toward the first row of seats. Before getting there, before splashing into the chairs off the court, Ginobili launched a 3-pointer over Harden that went through the net with barely a ripple.
And Brooks wants his team to force Ginobili into taking tougher shots? Good luck with that.
But good luck to Ginobili being able to replicate, or even come close to replicating, his Game 1 performance. In the Spurs' previous eight playoff games, Ginobili was three times as likely to score seven points or less (he has had games of seven, four and six) than he was to reach 20 (22 against the Clippers).
In fact, that 22-point outburst in the previous round was in Game 1 of that series as well, after an eight-day layoff. Ginobili's 26-point outburst Sunday night came after a seven-day break. What happens the rest of this series, with games set for every other day? No idea, but recent history says Ginobili will struggle. Not because he lacks the talent, but because he lacks the body. His chassis is hurting, some pieces gone, others held together by tape and tenacity.
Appreciate what you're watching when you watch Manu Ginobili. You won't see a lot more of the guy. And you might never again see him play like he played Sunday night.