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Manu Ginobili: Finals X-Factor

USA Today Sports

USA Today Sports

It’s a popular narrative to discuss just how close the Spurs came to their fifth title in the Pop-Tim era last year, and of course it couldn’t be truer.  The specific set of events that took place in the final half-minute of Game 6 are incredibly unlikely, especially when factoring in San Antonio’s experience in such situations.  But in today’s news cycle, it can be tough to remember that roughly 47 and a half minutes of basketball were played before Ray Allen’s miraculous shot, plus another five for overtime and 48 in Game 7 a couple days later.

These minutes were, collectively, far more important than the 30 seconds or so that are etched in all our memories.  We saw LeBron’s by-now-expected otherworldliness, a throwback half for the ages from Tim, and a quietly ridiculous game from Mike Miller (only 8 points, but several big rebounds and a ludicrous 201 Offensive Rating in just under 30 minutes on the court, per basketballreference.com).  There were some icky performances too – Dwyane Wade was 6-15 from the floor and shot just two free throws, attempting to assert himself but devolving into a midrange brick-fest against the Spurs’ collapsing paint defense.  Danny Green came back to earth after his scorching first five games, just 1-5 beyond the arc after shooting well over 50 percent in the series up to that point.  But as sad as it is to pick on one of my (everyone’s) favorite players to watch, the award for biggest stink-bomb went to none other than Manu Ginobili.

The Argentinian spark plug just couldn’t seem to do anything right, and it accentuated a series where he was wildly inconsistent.  He took just five field goals, making two, despite seeing plenty of Ray Allen and Mario Chalmers, both isolations he’d generally exploit.  Worst of all, he turned the ball over a horrifying eight times, including three in the fourth quarter and overtime.  Even for a guy predictably declining at 35 years old, it was a sad sight for those of us who have come to expect joy from watching him.  So what happened, not only in Game 6 but in the entire series?

For starters, some credit needs to be given to the other team.  The Heat’s havoc-inducing defense, dialed up to full blast in what’s become a rare occurrence, presented several problems for Ginobili’s unique style of play.  Their length and constant movement aren’t things he’s used to seeing apart from matchups with Oklahoma City, and the Thunder aren’t as aggressive or as savvy as Miami’s group last season at full focus.  They disturbed Ginobili’s shooting by forcing him into uncomfortable spots, and his percentages across the board plummeted, particularly from beyond the arc (25 percent for the series).

Shooting comes and goes, though, and Ginobili is usually capable of producing even on off nights for his jumper.  But against Miami, his usually playmaking would go badly out of sync for long periods at a time as the Heat pressured him in unexpected ways.  He’d often find himself committing to an action too far in advance, leaving him vulnerable – these are situations we’ve grown accustomed to seeing the crafty Manu slither his way out of, but against the Heat’s hyper-speed recoveries he couldn’t get away with it:

Miami, always remarkably well-prepared from a tactical standpoint, was ready for Ginobili’s sneaky ways.  They weren’t caught off guard by his array of misdirection, fully clogging passing lanes he’s used to finding holes in.  Take a look at this classic Spurs “Hammer” set, used to perfection earlier this postseason in their series win over the Thunder, and pay particular attention to Thunder big Steven Adams in the paint:

Adams is clueless here, but that’s not an insult in this case – far older and more experienced guys have been falling for this action for a decade plus.  It preys on the nature of defenders to watch the ball and send help rotations, and is likely most effective with Ginobili on the ball utilizing his wide range of irregular moves to keep the defense guessing.  Adams hasn’t even begun to consider the possibility of such a pass by the time it’s already flying by him – he’s already looking at Diaw, the typical passing outlet for a “trapped” ball-handler in the corner:

Again, this isn’t some rookie mistake; this happens constantly, and Ginobili can’t be faulted too heavily for leaning on it.  But watch what happened in last year’s Finals when he tried the same sort of thing on Chris Bosh:

To be fair, this is a different case than the clip above – Ginobili’s teammates, both Diaw as the outlet and Green as the cross-court option, are slow in getting to their spots, Diaw in particular.  But the Heat are in part responsible for this, and Bosh knows not to take his eye off Ginobili early.  Meanwhile, Manu is simply going by muscle memory once he rounds the corner, and now his usual creativity has backfired with the Heat ready for one of his pet actions.  This happened all over the court, Spoelstra’s bunch constantly a step ahead, and it contributed in large part to his 5.1 turnovers per-36 over San Antonio’s four losses in the series, a figure that blows away his career highs for any season or postseason.

So should we expect more of the same this time around?  Well….I’m not so sure.  A few things make me particularly dubious, starting with the simple fact that Ginobili is playing better this postseason than last.  Whatever the reason, be it injury or fatigue or something else altogether, Manu had likely his worst postseason since his rookie year last time around, and it wasn’t just against the Heat.  He came into the Finals shooting just a hair over 38 percent for the playoffs, and though this had easily been enough for San Antonio up until then, whispers were being heard that perhaps one of the Spurs had finally lost a step – but as always, they seem to have been exaggerated.  Buoyed by a season filled with days off courtesy of Pop, Manu is back to his old ways this postseason, to this point putting up his highest WS/48 figure since San Antonio’s last title in 2007.  He looks springy and energized (for 36), and the shooting stroke that deserted him much of last year’s playoffs has returned.

That isn’t the only reason I’m expecting a very different Finals from the Argentine star.  The Heat have lost a well-documented step with their helter-skelter D, and their ability to close on passing lanes isn’t what it was even a year ago.  But even more important is this: his mistakes from last year are easily correctible, particularly his turnover issues.  Watch this clip from last year, Manu going to one of his pet moves, a look-off to a rolling Duncan that often results in a layup when opposing defenses follow Ginobili’s eyes and over-rotate to the corner:

It doesn’t work here, but those sort of plays make Ginobili look worse than is actually the case – what looks like an awful decision in real time (James had the steal easily after refusing to bite on the look-off even one bit) really just amounts to his ruse being sniffed out by a far smarter wing defender than he’s used to playing against.  Ginobili is one of the smartest players on perhaps the smartest team to ever play the game, coached by likely the smartest coach to ever roam the sidelines.  But folks tend to forget that, as a Western Conference team who doesn’t put a ton of stock into the regular season, San Antonio has had very little experience over the years with the Heat’s style of defense being played at a breakneck pace.  The Spurs are human (I think), and even the smartest teams develop habits when they’ve been doing the same things for a decade – it’s hard to blame them, and Manu specifically, for failing to adjust in time.

That said, expecting the same result a full year later is obviously foolish.  Pop has been stewing on stuff like this all season, and you can bet no member of his team will be caught off guard this time around.  Spoelstra will have his own new counters up his sleeve, of course, but after being burned once the Spurs will not be surprised by Miami’s activity level, and this could be a huge distinction.  They also played the Thunder last round, and OKC might be the closest thing in the league to Miami’s own defensive style, so they should be even more primed for what’s coming.  Manu’s confidence appears high, and his homework is definitely done – the Heat won’t be able to rely on nearly as many easy points this time around, and this could end up proving the difference after a series that was so tight last year.

Any number of variables could swing a series between the two savviest teams in the game today.  Much of the talk will deservedly be on Tony Parker’s health and obviously LeBron, but don’t sleep on Ginobili as the X-factor for this series.  He has a lot to prove after last year, is in better form, and won’t be caught unprepared for a second time.  Man, I cannot wait to watch this Finals.

Oh…Spurs in 6.  Enjoy, everyone.

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