SAN ANTONIO -- Manu Ginobili had his hands on every play and his heart in this Game 5 right from the start. Rising out of 11 years of his folk-hero status in San Antonio, Ginobili emerged on Sunday night with the kind of magnificence his team needed.
Always about the team. Always about the Spurs.
Gregg Popovich had told him the day before he'd be starting Game 5, after a dreadful performance in the previous game and a mostly lifeless postseason. So many times over the years, the Spurs' fate has ridden up or down with Ginobili, and with the NBA Finals teetering at 2-2 against the defending champs, his team needed him.
His voice had been filled with doubt on Saturday as the questions kept coming about why he'd been so ineffective -- so un-Manu-like -- in the first four games of this series against the Miami Heat. After he'd scored a mere 30 points in the first four games of the Finals, I'd asked Ginobili how and where he could attack the Heat, what chances were out there for him to make a winning impact in one of the biggest games of his mostly heroic time wearing a black-and-silver No. 20 jersey.
"I don't know, to tell you the truth," Ginobili said.
But Popovich knew. Proving once again why he's the most brilliant tactician in basketball, Pop decided to insert Ginobili into the starting lineup as a counter to Erik Spoelstra's small-ball scheme. The result was less defensive pressure on Ginobili, more chances for him to orchestrate and freelance and make everyone better. The result was a 114-104 victory for the Spurs, who took a 3-2 lead with the series shifting back to Miami for Games 6 and 7.
Ginobili is one of the delightful interviews in sports, and not just because he was so candid on Saturday about the possibility of retirement dancing in his head. He gives thoughtful answers that reveal his knowledge of the game and his trust in what the Spurs have been doing for so long. So it's worth looking back on how Ginobili described his struggles in Games 1-4 as a backdrop for his 24-point, 10-assist revival when the Spurs needed him most.
"It's the way they play defense on the pick-and-roll," Ginobili had said. "They're aggressive on the ball-handler. And in all four games, we've tried to find the open teammate the same way. Sometimes we turn it over, sometimes we make shots."
In Game 4, they turned it over 18 times and Ginobili was trapped and blitzed incessantly. He had five points on 1-for-5 shooting in a 16-point loss, and suddenly the theme became that Ginobili was finished -- that this was the beginning of the end.
They all have each other's backs in San Antonio, and have for a long time. That's why Tony Parker began his postgame press conference on Sunday night by saying, "I told you Manu was going to play good. You didn't believe me."
"We're not a team or an organization that kind of points fingers in that respect," Tim Duncan said. "I know it's on the media to find out what's wrong with everybody ... but he's such a huge part of what we do and how far we've come."
There was something wrong with Ginobili, and Popovich fixed it. It's what he does. Parker knew it would work; Duncan, too. Ginobili, consumed with doubt during the two-day break between Games 4 and 5, didn't sound so sure.
"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. That was the frustrating part. ... I was a little upset."
Popovich inserting Ginobili into the starting lineup for Tiago Splitter accomplished two things: It got Ginobili into a rhythm early in the game, and it muted the Heat's ability to trap him and force him into poor decisions. On the floor more with Parker, off the ball at times, Ginobili didn't face the same kind of harassment that had doomed him as the primary ball-handler with the bench unit.
"The fact that they're playing defense so high on me and Timmy, I felt that it would be easier for Manu," Parker said. "Every time he comes off the bench, the whole focus of the defense is on him because I'm out and Timmy is out. So when he's playing with us and they're still going to trap me and still going to pay attention to Timmy, Manu is going to get opportunities."
It was a masterful adjustment by Popovich, and Ginobili responded with his highest scoring output since scoring 34 in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals last season against the Thunder.
"I just had a better overall offensive game, and I needed to feel like that," Ginobili said.
Ginobili stepped confidently into his first shot of the night and drilled it -- just like he needed to. When the Spurs went on a 12-1 run to close the third quarter -- lethal, championship stuff -- Ginobili scored seven points and assisted on two more. The run extended to 19-1 early in the fourth, and suddenly the Spurs had a 19-point lead and the building was filled with chants of, "Ma-nu! Ma-nu!" It was a raucous release of emotion, a fitting tribute for the most beloved Spur of them all.
"He's been here a long time," Popovich said. "He's helped us have a lot of success over the years. One can imagine since he speaks the language of a lot of the people who live here, it endears him even more. So when you put that all together, he's quite a popular young man."
A young man of 35 who played like he always has when the Spurs have been at their best -- a man whose diverse, joyous talents once again came through in contrast to the bald spot on the top of his head.
"He wanted to play well," Duncan said. "He wanted to play well really badly."
Duncan said he knew that Ginobili would; Parker said it, too. It's a bond they've developed since Ginobili arrived in 2002 and helped the Spurs to the second of their four championships during the Duncan era.
With a badly needed revival from the most popular Spur, the one whose name rolls off the tongue and whose game rides dangerously on the edge, the Spurs are one win away from No. 5.