Manu Ginobili is proof that nice guys don't finish last—and that they don't receive the appropriate credit for finishing first.
Because he's a nice guy, you'll never see nor hear a hint of frustration or disappointment from Ginobili about his lack of recognition as the San Antonio Spurs' fire starter. He has, unfailingly, sacrificed whatever is necessary—starting job, career statistics, national team commitment—while unfailingly assuming the responsibility of taking shots and making momentum-changing plays when circumstances are bleakest.
Both his and Tim Duncan's mentality is such that the Spurs could've started selling the line a couple of years ago that it had become Tony Parker's team. That, most suspected, was hardly more than a psychological ploy to get the most out of Parker, knowing that Duncan and Ginobili would continue to play as they always had. A former member of the Spurs organization co-signed the notion that Parker is underrated when it comes to his overall standing among NBA point guards but overrated when it comes to his place in San Antonio's hierarchy.
The Spurs, as much as they pretend not to care about media attention, do not mind manipulating how they're perceived to meet their particular needs. League executives believe they've mounted the same public relations campaign in touting Kawhi Leonard as capable of leading San Antonio after Tim, Manu and Tony are gone.
Wherever the Spurs go once the Big Three exit, you saw once again in Game 5, in particular—and the series in general—who led them out of the darkness. Parker had flashbacks to the 2003 Finals, when he froze so badly that coach Gregg Popovich was forced to play Steve Kerr the entire fourth quarter in the closing game. Similarly, Popovich went to Patty Mills to help Ginobili close out the series, with Parker helping keep the Heat at bay late after looking overwhelmed early.
"Timmy is so steady," a former Spur said. "But within our group, Manu is just that guy who changes everything."
He did it again Sunday. The Miami Heat, motivated to stave off elimination, roared out to an 8-0 lead with Ginobili on the bench and extended that lead to 22-6 even after he replaced Danny Green. Ginobili, however, has a resilience that is infectious, and the Heat know it. In a span of 22 seconds, he drove for a three-point play, drew an offensive foul for a turnover and buried a three-pointer that had coach Erik Spoelstra jumping off the bench to call a timeout.
It didn't help. After the break, Ginobili found Kawhi Leonard for a three, trimming Miami's lead to single digits, lighting up the AT&T Center and giving everyone in black and silver the knowledge that they'd weathered the worst.
"Without him," GM R.C. Buford said, "we're probably never in the game."
If that early run gave the Spurs hope, Ginobili's dunk late in the second quarter gave them faith that they were not going back to Miami. Ginobili didn't posterize the entire Heat team; it just felt that way. "The dunk," Buford said, "may have been the play that made everybody believe."
Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, a former Spurs assistant, thought the same while watching it on TV. "Game-changing," he said.
Leonard wound up as the Finals MVP for doggedly pressuring LeBron James into scoring only 31 points while collecting 22 points and 10 rebounds, including a transition three that gave the Spurs their first lead. (Crediting Leonard for single-handedly stopping James is akin to crediting James for single-handedly stopping Derrick Rose a few years back; in both cases, Rose/James knew they could get past the first defender but also knew they were going to be swarmed once they did, forcing them to pick their spots.)
Ginobili finished with 19 points, four rebounds and four assists while posting the game's best plus/minus (plus-21). Equally important, he was a big reason why Ray Allen and Dwyane Wade shot a collective 5-of-20. While a lesser assignment than covering James, Ginobili made two of James' key teammates shoot over him and saved his fouls for helping out on James.
Traditional statistics have never done Ginobili justice because he is all about putting the opposition on its heels and trusting his teammates to exploit the advantage he initially creates. That might mean a drive to draw two defenders and somehow getting a shot up on the rim that does not fall but leaves Duncan or Boris Diaw in position for an easy tip-in. Or it might mean a no-look laser pass to Tiago Splitter that leads to the defense scrambling to stop Splitter, setting up an easy slip pass to Duncan for a rim-bending dunk. Ginobili didn't get any credit for either play, even though he orchestrated both.
This, of course, is not the first time Ginobili has led the Spurs to a title and not received MVP honors for his efforts. He made nearly identical plays, including a momentum-turning dunk off a drive through the entire Detroit defense, a pivotal three and a back-breaking feed for another three to clinch Game 7 in 2005. He would finish one vote behind Duncan for Finals MVP honors.
"When he went down the lane against Miami, I immediately thought of him doing the same thing to Detroit," Budenholzer said.
Ginobili, disappointed in how he wore down in last year's Finals versus Miami, elected not to play for his beloved Argentina national team last summer in order to strength train for the first time in years. That, the Spurs believe, played a big part in his ability to sustain his energy, at 36, all the way through this year's Finals.
"He's never afraid of the moment," the aforementioned former Spur said. "When you need a bucket, he finds a way to get it. With some of them, you just say, 'How the hell did he make that?'"
It's a priceless asset. It's why, after Duncan, no one has been more vital to San Antonio's sustained success. The fact that Leonard and Parker have Finals MVP trophies and Ginobili doesn't completely skews their places in the team's pyramid of importance. Those who don't understand the principles of the Spurs offense believe Ginobili violates them; in fact, Parker is known for breaking their offense far more often, which is why Popovich has been harsher with him over the years.
It's also why, when Popovich has talked about Parker or Leonard, he's talked about their capabilities. When he talks about Ginobili, it's about what he has done and means to the franchise.
"No Manu, no championships," Popovich once said.
That's another way of saying Ginobili deserves more credit for the Spurs' success than he has been given—a lot more.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @RicBucher.
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