The Boston Celtics swept the season series against the San Antonio Spurs 2-0 with a 93-91 victory on the road tonight.
The story of the night was the production of Manu Ginobili and Rajon Rondo. Sure, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Tony Parker all filled up the stat sheet, but to watch the game was to observe two elite NBA guards in one of the most exhilarating East/West duels this season.
Ginobili's line (32 PTs, 10-18 FGs, 4-7 3PT, 8-8 FT, 4 REB, 2 AST) was the best in the game, but sophomore point guard Rajon Rondo answered with a clear message to the Western Conference teams: "Don't leave me open!" Rondo responded to Manu's efforts with his own impressive numbers (20 PTs, 9-18FGs, 2-2 FT, 6 REB, 3 AST, 3 STL).
Fans who watched the game were treated to a roller coaster ride that ended with a Bruce Bowen steal and subsequent Robert Horry fade-away three-pointer off of a sloppy Garnett inbound pass with precious seconds left in the game. If you switched the channel with the Celtics down 22 points early in the first half, you missed one of the most exciting inter-conference games of the season.
The Spurs owned the first quarter and a half, but the Celtics were able to close the gap to just 10 points as the buzzer sounded to end the half. Boston made quick work in the opening minutes of the third quarter to essentially erase what had seemed to be an insurmountable lead.
Boston took it's first lead of the game off of a Rondo steal, spin move, and leading pass to Paul Pierce who dunked the ball home to silence San Antonio's roaring crowd. Seconds later, the Celtics built on this lead with a Paul Pierce full-court pass to Rondo to return the favor.
The rest of the game was fought in short spurts and impressive offensive plays by both teams.
To watch this thriller was to experience two totally different players with an (almost) equal effect in the game. Manu and Rajon fiercely battled back and forth before the Celtics' point guard left in the third period with an ankle sprain. Had Rondo not returned, the Celtics could easily have lost the game.
Rondo ended up pulling down a beautiful one-handed rebound, cradling the ball between his right palm and forearm. He simply WANTED the ball more than a tired Tony Parker who stood (both feet on the floor) waiting for the ball to drop into his outstretched hands. This single play sealed San Antonio's fate and silenced critics league-wide who believed that Rondo lacked "experience" and the "intangibles" than an elite point guard needs to lead a team to the NBA Championship.
Was it just this play? No.
Was it the all-around solid game against the defending champions? No.
It has been Rajon Rondo's student mentality that he takes into each and every game as he learns on the fly from some of the most intelligent basketball minds of the past 20 years (Garnett, R. Allen, Pierce, Cassell, Coach Doc Rivers, and my selection for assistant coach of the year Tom Thibodeau).
Back to Manu vs. Rajon...
The two guards acted as foils throughout the entire game. Rondo brought a silky smooth set of moves consisting of ball fakes, floaters, and reverse layups that are rarely seen in today's bump-and-grind style of point guard play.
Conversely, Ginobili had the most effective "ugly" game that I've had the pleasure of watching all season long. And it was a pleasure. If you've played enough schoolyard pickup games or maybe try to find 45 minutes during lunch to sneak away from work to shoot some hoops, you've probably had the fortune (or misfortune) of playing with "that guy"—the balding, somewhat-out-of-shape older guy who wears his shorts too short and his socks too high.
Invariably "that guy" takes the most ridiculous, ill-advised shots of anyone on the court...and reliably seems to hit each and every one. Manu Ginobili is often "that guy" and tonight was certainly no exception. Helped out by an extra step on every other layup and very generous foul calls, Manu carved out the line of the night and did so in an incredibly ugly fashion.
In fact, Ginobili's game was so ugly that it lead me to mutter comments such as, "I could play better than this bum" and "It's easy when you're reflecting light off of your bald spot into the defender's eyes." (Yes, I was watching this game alone and continually talking—and cursing—to myself.)
But the truth of the matter is that, Manu is simply "that guy" on a whole other level. He is the embodiment of this stereotype at the highest level of basketball that leaves the likes of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett shaking their heads in disbelief.
To return to the pickup game metaphor, that would make you and me...Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. The guys I ball with have called me a lot of names but "The Truth" isn't one of them.
The bottom line: Manu Ginobili is playing some of the best "ugly" basketball this league has ever seen, and on some level that's more crushing that a guy like Kobe sweet-stroking his way to these type of numbers, or LeBron muscling his way through a helpless defensive line. Every lucky bounce (or eight) on the rim and every missed traveling call is like a dagger through the heart.
Manu Ginobili—in this Celtics fan's humble opinion—was the best player of the game, but Rajon Rondo WON the game. I look forward to several more years of back-and-forth duels between Rondo and Ginobili and their clearly contrasting styles of play.