Whenever Manu Ginobili touched the ball in last year's NBA Finals, the San Antonio Spurs crowd would immediately hold its breath. Turnover after turnover, Ginobili's poor play left many wondering how this very same player was able to capture two All-Star bids at the height of his career.
Against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night, Ginobili erased all doubts—the perfect ending to a strong start to the season.
During his season-long slump in 2012-13, any strong outing was immediately dubbed a "vintage Manu" performance. But this year, such outings have become the norm; with a quarter of the season under his belt, Manu Ginobili is officially back.
Well, sort of.
At the apex of his illustrious career, the second-round afterthought-turned-star managed nearly 20 points per game in just over 30 minutes with a true shooting percentage of over 60 percent.
By the time the season draws to a close, its unlikely that the 2013 version of the former All-Star will claim such an embellished stat line. That said, the true beauty of this revamped Ginobili lies deeper than what his statistics might suggest.
At a quick glance, you would see that he's managing just over 11 points per game on an adequate 47 percent shooting. In just 23 minutes, these statistics are respectable—but enough to consider this season a definitive comeback? Most signs point to no.
But his in-game play tells a different story—and his resurgence can be summed up in a simple statement:
When Manu Ginobili is on the court, fans cheer for him to get the ball.
Last season, that was not the case. Especially in the playoffs, it was expected that the struggling sixth man would cough up a turnover or chuck up a wild three-pointer whenever he touched the ball. It was painful to watch, to the point where fans deemed him the Miami Heat's 2013 Finals MVP.
Harsh, but not unwarranted; he was, after all, nothing short of a complete liability.
But life is full of second chances, and from what we've seen thus far in 2013-14, last year's blunder-filled campaign was simply an extended slump, rather than an indication of a sharp decline.
When he took the floor to begin the fourth quarter against the Timberwolves on Friday, he had pitched in just four points. The Spurs trailed by nine.
When the final buzzer sounded, Ginobili had managed 20 total points and nine assists in just 25 minutes.
His team-high plus/minus of plus-27 was a significant contributor to the team's fourth-quarter turnaround, as the Spurs finished with a seven-point victory.
“Manu is playing great. He looks fresh and he’s making his shots. In the 4th qtr he was very aggressive. That was big for us.” – Tony Parker— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) December 14, 2013
It was a contest that showcased the very best of Manu Ginobili.
He made a pair of three-pointers (missing just two, although both were good looks), drove with a certain recklessness that has defined his career and orchestrated the kind of team effort that Gregg Popovich fantasizes about.
In one word, Ginobili's play could be described as "smart."
Unlike last year, where he was often criticized for trying to do too much, the veteran guard has recognized the limitations that come with age. Yet, he has found ways around them.
The entire season, he's done what he does best: His 74.1 percent success rate on drives leads all players who have attempted at least 30. His 38.6 percent clip from downtown is his second-best percentage since 2008, and his per-36 minutes assist average of 7.5 is a career best.
Even with teammates Marco Belinelli and Boris Diaw contributing at such a high level off the bench, Ginobili has separated himself enough to draw praise from Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver, who tabbed him as the second-best sixth man thus far into the season.
Not bad for a guy who was called the opposition's MVP just sixth months earlier.
In the end, Ginobili's 20-point spectacles won't be regular occurrences. His averages right now are on par with what he will finish with.
But even when he's posting just 11 points, Ginobili will still be a source of success that the Spurs can rely on.
As long as he is playing smart, it's safe to say that he's valuable to the squad.
And while that value may not be the exact same as it was five years ago, this season is resurgent when compared to last year's laughingstock of a campaign.
There's plenty of basketball to be played, and a lot can change. But as for now, San Antonio can stop holding its collective breath; Manu Ginobili is back.