By Sam Amick
USA TODAY Sports
SAN ANTONIO – Something had changed about the Manu Ginobili supporters in this town.
The tattooed, middle-aged guy at the bar with the No. 20 jersey spoke about the fallen San Antonio Spurs star as if he was an uncle on life support. His countrymen from Argentina were so concerned, so unaccustomed to seeing him play like this, that they brought a banner to Game 5 of the NBA Finals just to remind him of their support: “We Ginobilieve,” it read.
The love wasn’t waning, but the faith most certainly was.
Until Sunday night.
After a surprise start from Spurs coach Gregg Popovich that will go down as the latest stroke of genius in his celebrated coaching career, Ginobili had 24 points and 10 assists in San Antonio’s 114-104 win vs. the Miami Heat. With the Spurs now leading the series 3-2, they head back to Miami for Game 6 on Tuesday with a chance to win the organization’s fifth championship. Since the league went to a 2-3-2 format, and the series has been tied 2-2, the Game 5 winner is 7-3 to win the series.
BOX SCORE: Spurs 114, Heat 104
Just one day before Ginobili’s vintage performance, he had admitted that there was a remote chance he would retire after this season when he becomes a free agent. Yet with his play from beginning to end stellar and the Heat clearly unsure how to handle this new look, the Spurs found themselves dominating on both ends just as they had in Game 3 as well.
They shot 60% from the field, with Tim Duncan adding 17 points and 12 rebounds and guard Danny Green setting a new Finals record with 25 three-pointers by scoring 24 points and hitting six of 10 from beyond the arc.Heat shooting guard Ray Allen had set the previous record of 22 in the 2008 Finals while with the Boston Celtics. Green, remarkably, has now hit 25 three-pointers in this series.
Point guard Tony Parker showed no ill effects of the hamstring strain that ails him, scoring 26 points. The Heat were held to 43% shooting, with LeBron James unable to continue the powerful play he had shown in Game 4 as he hit just eight of 22 shots for 25 points.
The Spurs were sparked by the most unexpected of moves, as he started super sub Manu Ginobili in a small lineup that also included guards Tony Parker and Danny Green along with small forward Kawhi Leonard and big man Tim Duncan. Ginobili hadn’t started since the 2012 Western Conference Finals, when Popovich pulled the same ploy for the final two games of a six-game series loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. It was a desperate move in a desperate time for a coach who had admitted his concern about Ginobili coming in.
Ginobili entered averaging 10.6 points per game while shooting just 37.7% overall and 29.8% from three-point range (3 of 16). His production was down in every other key category as well, this after what was one of the most pedestrian regular seasons of his storied career.
“Well, of course I am (concerned),” Popovich had said. “He’s having a tough playoffs, and he hasn’t really found a rhythm or found his game yet. I think that he’s obviously not as confident as usual, and he knows full well that he hasn’t performed the way he would like and the way he’s used to…He’s going to get himself going or he won’t. He knows that he’s got to play better for us to be successful.”
Popovich’s move worked from the start, as the Spurs led 32-19 after a first quarter in which their swarming defense and new-look offense were dominant. Ginobili waited all of 19 seconds before making the sort of impact that has been missing for most of the postseason, and put the Heat on their heels in the process.
He hit a shot from the left wing that was originally ruled a three-pointer but later deemed a two. He found Danny Green for a layup on the next possession, then Duncan for a dunk the next time down.
Ginobili hit two free throws after an aggressive drive and foul, then finessed a tight pocket pass through two defenders to find Duncan for a floater that put the Spurs up 10-6. In the span of 130 seconds, Ginobili had put his fingerprints on more plays than the first four games combined.
Parker took the lead from there, turning a 17-17 tie into the 13-point edge entering the second quarter by showing yet again that his ailing hamstring wasn’t hampering him. He slithered past Norris Cole for a scoop shot, hit two free throws after a drive and foul, then backed him down in the post for another bucket.
And with Green continuing his unreal run of three-point shooting by hitting three of four in the first half, it seemed San Antonio would control the action all night long.
But thanks to a familiar foe for the Spurs, the Heat would respond to the 19-5 San Antonio run that had put them in a 36-22 hole. After a Wade putback and a Bosh tip started what would become a 20-11 run of their own, a Bosh block on Duncan triggered a fastbreak – from Wade to a leaping James for the dunk – that turned the early tide.
James (16 first-half points) was officially revived after his quiet start, blowing by Duncan on the baseline for a reverse layup, burying a stepback jumper over Kawhi Leonard from the left side, then punishing Green in the post for a layup that brought Miami within five (51-46).
Parker, however, would have the final say of the first half. His floater over Shane Battier and a blow-by of Norris Cole and layup with 0.4 seconds left put the Spurs up 61-52 at the break. In all, the Spurs had shot a scorching 61.8% from the field (21 of 34) while the Heat had been held to 42.2% shooting (19 of 45).
Yet every time the Heat had an answer, the Spurs – as had been the case for nearly two decades – had Ginobili. After the Heat cut the lead to 75-74 in the third quarter, he scored six points in the final 2:21 of the period to carry a 12-1 run and put San Antonio up 87-75 entering the fourth. A runner on the right side, another beauty over Cole on the left, a pass to a slashing Tiago Splitter for a dunk and a hard-driving runner on the right over Cole and a closing Udonis Haslem with 0.4 seconds left that sparked the latest chants of “Manu, Manu” from the crowd that had missed him like a long lost relative.