Manu Ginobili is 34, which is old by NBA standards. He's been in the league since 2002 and has competed in the playoffs every year, which means he's piled up some serious mileage on those Argentinian wheels of his. His expanding bald spot and lengthening list of injuries stand, respectively, as testaments to those facts.
But, maybe that's all just a cover. Maybe it was the plan of the San Antonio Spurs to have Manu lull everyone to sleep through the first two rounds of the postseason, much as he does (and has done throughout his career) with his languid maneuvers and old-man Eurosteps to the basket.
Only to strike when the opposition least expects it.
Conspiracy theories aside, Ginobili proved to be a killer against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, a smooth operator and a silent assassin all rolled into one in a 101-98 win for the Alamo to remember.
Forget about James Harden, the Sixth Man of the Year. Ginobili was the Sixth Man of the Moment, scoring a team-high 26 points on 9-of-14 shooting along with five rebounds, three assists and a steal. He put pressure on Harden all night long, attacking the 22-year-old (whose game is practically a mirror image of his own) with crafty moves off the dribble and circus shots all over the floor.
And when the Spurs needed someone to set aside the unselfish ethos and get the job done, it was Ginobili who stood and delivered. The Argentinian was nothing short of divine down the stretch, pouring in 11 points over a five-plus-minute span in the latter stages of the fourth quarter to help the Spurs stretch the slimmest of margins to a decisive, double-digit advantage.
Manu was as masterful as ever, understated in his dominance yet every bit as crucial to the cause as he's ever been. When OKC's speed, length and athleticism proved disruptive to San Antonio's typically crisp execution, it was Ginobili who used the dribble to open up the floor and create shots in vintage fashion.
In a game that featured the star power of the greatest power forward of all time (Tim Duncan), a legitimate MVP candidate (Tony Parker) and the Coach of the Year (Gregg Popovich) on one side, and a three-time scoring champ (Kevin Durant) and the sport's most explosive force (Russell Westbrook) on the other, it was the first guy off the bench who shined the brightest.
Not that Manu is a slouch as far as accolades are concerned. He's been an integral part of three title teams, he's played in two All-Star Games, he's been the Sixth Man of the Year and he's led his country to a gold medal at the Olympics.
But you wouldn't know it just by looking at him.
Apparently, the Thunder didn't, or had forgotten anyway. They focused so intently on stopping Duncan and Parker and contesting San Antonio's spot-up shooters that they left the Spurs' most surreptitious star to turn a nine-point deficit into a three-point win.
Not all by himself, of course. That would be too conspicuous for a guy who's made a rather productive career out of flying under the radar.
Who knew that a player who was taken 57th overall in the 1999 NBA draft and spent three years overseas thereafter would still be such an important cog in a machine that's won 19 games in a row and looks destined to dance down the River Walk with another Larry O'Brien Trophy?
Then again, that's what Ginobili's done throughout his pro career, in some form or fashion. He lies in wait, biding his time until everyone keys in on his more heralded teammates, recharging his aging batteries all the while.
And when the moment's right—when he's healthy and well rested and nobody's paying him much attention—he springs into action with the destructive force of a million strands of spaghetti.
Goofy? Yes. Slippery? Yes. Effective? You bet.
Just ask the Thunder. They thought they had this game in the bag. They thought it was their time to rise up out of the West and take what was rightfully theirs.
And then, the Balding Mamba struck.
Maybe that's how the Spurs drew it up. Maybe not. Whatever the case may be, the ultimate fact remains the same: The Spurs won, Manu was the man and somehow—yet understandably—the Thunder didn't see it coming.
Does anyone ever?