2012 NBA Playoffs: With Surging Ginobili, Spurs Not Easy to Oust

With his team’s experience — and, perhaps, a healthy, explosive sixth man — to the San Antonio Spurs advantage — this would be a moment when Manu Ginobili leads his team and when experience beats youth. With due respect to a speedy Tony Parker and Ginobili and the well-respected coach Greg Popovich, who is brilliant at making adjustments in the playoffs, the Spurs can likely win their fifth championship in 13 years.

Therefore, the Spurs are simply favored to eliminate the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals after a telling 101-98 victory to take a 1-0 lead in this interesting series, winning their 19th in a row to tie the NBA record for longest winning streak in the playoffs. It’s hard to look past the Spurs, who have mostly the same roster the last time they won a championship. They’ve been there and done that — they are a team you can’t rule out. Never. Ever. Rule out. Make no mistake, the Spurs are older than the Thunder, but simultaneously are ageless.

Before we berate the Spurs, a team built with star power to conceivably beat Oklahoma City, might we consider that Ginobili is having the postseason of his NBA career, might we consider that Tim Duncan, 36, is playing like he’s 26 — ten years younger? Knocking down clutch shots in the closing minutes, Ginobili managed to score a total of 26 points, which marked a season high. That wasn’t all, folks. Dissing off passes, as well, gave him three assists and even he grabbed five rebounds. By the time it was over, he had 14 field goals to have his best game all season. This is where he was dangerous and too quick, playing with much emotion and firepower.

Suddenly, having a debate about those overexposed James Harden and Ginobili match ups have no significance, especially if Ginobili continues to outmatch Harden. Efforts to score 23 fourth-quarter points, it is worth pointing out that Ginobili can’t be stopped by anyone but can only be contained. Nothing was missing in his game and he had the mental ability to expose a full repertoire of dominance when he single-handedly wrapped up Game 1. The team obeyed Popovich’s orders in a fourth quarter timeout, begging his players to play “nasty,” a mental approach that erased a nine-point deficit.

“I thought we were playing for most of the first half, and even at the beginning of the third quarter, a bit unconfidently, kind of on our heels, a little bit unsure of ourselves, on the dribble too much,” Popovich said. “So I talked to them about they’ve got to get a little bit uglier, get a little more nasty, play with more fiber and take it to these guys.”

From there on, the Spurs controlled the flow of the game, thanks to Ginobili’s fourth-quarter performance, a star-studded extravaganza at home in front of a sellout crowd. It’s not a fluke. It’s real. Ginobili is the best player for the Spurs. Not Duncan. Not Parker. Ginobili is that guy. So as long as he can stay healthy, the Spurs have a shot at winning a fifth championship in team history and eyes are on Ginobili. Photographers are popping flashbulbs at him. Columns are dwelling on his spectacular game the other night. And Spurs fans are hoping for an encore.

While the most well-rounded player happens to be Ginobili, an Argentine star who spent the early part of his basketball career in Argentina and Italy in the Euroleague, Popovich is the most influential person in the locker room, no doubt. He is easily considered the best coach the Spurs ever seen, if not the best in this generation, keeping his players in contention every season.

But not every player at Ginobili’s age is capable of scoring abundantly. Not every player is as fast as he has been in these players, scoring and weaving his way through traffic and exploding to the basket to finish a dazzling layup. This was no ordinary night at AT&T Center. This was Ginobili at his best against the Thunder. Unafraid to fly, he had his way against Harden, he was a nuisance to everyone underneath the basket.

“It just happened,” Ginobili said of his remarkable performance. “I don’t know how exactly because I haven’t scored like this all season long, but it happened and I’m very happy about it.”

Even though, he’s going on 35, Ginobili still has plenty left in his tank. If no one knew, they do now. This was a Sunday night playoff game in San Antonio, where he put on a show that caught us by surprise — something we shouldn’t have ever expected from him. But now, of course, we can imagine him leading the way for the Spurs. It might happen in Game 2 or Game 3, and then again it might not happen. However, everyone knows his capabilities and what he can bring to the game.

In the fourth quarter, when Ginobili scored 11 points in less than six minutes, he illustrated that he can carry the weight on his shoulders by attacking the rim and drawing fouls to be awarded free throws. He’s a sixth man, a left-handed superstar who can have a shooting clinic, make three-pointers and accelerate off the dribble to storm to the basket and plague opponents defensively. It was such a perfect night for Ginobili. In his past six games, he’s made only 37 percent of his shots — including 7-for-17 Sunday night.

And while it was a flawless night, he gave the Spurs a six-point lead to end the first quarter. Hot from the beginning to end, he hit a purposeless three-pointer at the final buzzer, all happening after he had taken over the game. Here’s where legends are born, and Ginobili is a legend. The biggest flaws, on the other side of things, were the Thunder. Westbrook struggled. Durant scored, as usual, pouring in 27 points. It was as if Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins had disappeared and abandoned the entire team.

Winning is the ultimate goal here. And now, the Spurs are likely to reach the ultimate goal. The Spurs are far more superior, as long as Ginobili poses a threat.

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