For all of the artistry and accolades that define Manu Ginobili’s eternal NBA career, his sporting tale is as much a story of resistance as anything else. Ginobili’s tenacity and desire have been just as important as his silky skills, and without his resolute temperament, his longevity and his platform might never have arrived.
Ginobili’s most important battles were fought in the infancy of his NBA career, back when he had to convince Gregg Popovich to give him the freedom to be himself. That Manu managed to win Popovich over was a victory for all. Who knows how differently the past decade of NBA ball would have unfolded had Popovich been steadfast and handcuffed one of the most creative players the league has ever seen.
Now that Ginobili’s creative license has been renewed annually without question for more than a decade, his resistance has shifted from an existential standoff with his head coach into a more cathartic struggle with the unprecedented athletic evolution around the league.
The first traces of Manu’s physical decline arrived during the 2013 Finals, when the turnovers piled up against a hyper-active, athletic and trap-happy Heat team that feasted on those sorts of mistakes. While the turnovers themselves hurt San Antonio, the evident bits of self-doubt those errors brought about were even more concerning.
Ginobili has always maintained that he would retire as soon as he stopped contributing to the team, and it seems the summer after those Finals was the first time Ginobili needed convincing from Popovich and R.C. Buford that he was still fit for a meaningful role with the Spurs. Ginobili’s decision to return in the wake of the Finals collapse paid instant dividends as he played a big part in the Spurs’ vengeful retaliation on the Heat the following season, and even as the retirement suspicions multiply with each passing season, Manu has fought hard to retain a rightful place in the Spurs’ rotation.
Yet there are still some nights when Ginobili’s indomitable will and noble resistance seem futile. San Antonio’s matchup with the Thunder on Friday was one of those games.
In five first quarter minutes against OKC, Ginobili racked up four turnovers, committed one personal foul and was a -16. With Oklahoma City deploying a defense full of athletic, long and rangy swingmen who switched on almost all of San Antonio’s ball screens, Ginobili struggled to create separation and had an even tougher time creating passing lanes. The turnovers got more and more embarrassing, with his fourth one barely qualifying as a pass as he threw the ball off the back of Dakari Johnson. Ginobili’s back-to-back giveaways at the two minute mark gifted the Thunder five quick points as Oklahoma City’s lead ballooned to 19.
When the referees went to the scorer’s table to review a foul late in the first, a dejected Ginobili wandered over to his head coach. You could almost sense him telling Popovich that he just didn’t have it tonight, physically or mentally by that point. Pop offered some words of encouragement and a pat on the back, but once the Spurs started to cut into the lead with Kyle Anderson and Danny Green on the wings in the second quarter, Ginobili remained on the bench for the entire period. It was the sort of scene where you could imagine Manu asking himself if coming back for another season was the right call.
Ginobili has always been one to wear his emotions on his sleeve, and if there was any doubt that his early struggles against OKC had affected him, you only had to watch his reactions to his first two made shots of the game early in the fourth quarter.
With the score tied to begin the final frame, Ginobili knocked down a step back three after shaking Patrick Patterson with a gnarly hesitation move and unleashed a trademark fist pump as he trotted back on defense. A few possessions later, Ginobili hit another three to give the Spurs a six-point lead, once again letting his fist fly in celebration. With two minutes left and the Spurs up two, Ginobili skied for a monster rebound, ripping down Steven Adams in the process.
Despite the most dispiriting of starts and even a hint of desolation as he sat out the entire second quarter, Ginobili had somehow, some way, managed to push back when he seemed to have been played off the court, putting his stamp on a game the Spurs couldn’t have won or lost without him.
And yet, even after Ginobili had done all he could to redeem himself, he nearly let it slip again. After securing a crucial stop in the final minute, Danny Green panicked and shuffled the ball off to Ginobili in a not so envious position near halfcourt. Within seconds of receiving the ball, Paul George had swarmed Ginobili, who looked uncomfortable immediately and lost his handle on a behind-the-back dribble, allowing George to secure a pivotal steal. Quite simply, this is something that would have never happened to Manu when he was at the peak of his powers, and the way George rushed Ginobili like he was some kind of wounded animal almost felt rude.
As fate would have it, OKC’s string of improbable offensive rebounds from George’s free throws didn’t amount to anything catastrophic, and LaMarcus Aldridge’s late putback helped seal a remarkable comeback victory for San Antonio. But what stood out the most in what was San Antonio’s most complete effort of the season, with strong performances coming from almost every one, was the mini-saga in which Ginobili went from reserving a spot on the Spurs Retirement Vehicle to helping turn the game around.
Early in Ginobili’s career, the turnovers represented an overzealous maestro who was doing his best to suit the needs of his regimented head coach. Now, they represent a veteran with a body that cannot always catch up with his mind.
But to this day, the one thing Ginobili’s bad bouts with turnovers or ill-advised plays has never represented is the end. One day, Manu’s career will be over, and on that day we can suspect Ginobili has decided that the game has passed him by.
Until that day, however, Manu Ginobili will never stop resisting it.