SAN ANTONIO — There’s the perception the Heat is finally getting the lift they expected from the players responsible for getting them to a third straight appearance in the NBA Finals, and that perception would be a bit off from reality.
Miami doesn’t have a Big Three against the Spurs, more like a Big Four: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh … and Manu Ginobili.
Seriously: Has any Heat player outside the Big Three been more of a help in this series than Ginobili?
It has been slow, agonizing and painful to watch, if you’re the Spurs or just someone who appreciates what Ginobili has meant to them and the league for many years. Not only is Ginobili hurting them, he’s benefitting Miami, a double whammy that can’t afford to continue for San Antonio over the next two or three games. It’s to the point where Spurs coach Gregg Popovich can’t keep Ginobili on the floor for long stretches, and Pop can’t figure out why.
“If I knew that I would have already fixed it,” he said.
Ginobili is shooting 34.5 percent, 18.8 percent on threes, averaging three assists and 1.5 rebounds and coughing up the ball twice a night. He’s also making bad decisions with an adventurous dribble that don’t show up in the stats. And this is coming off a so-so series against Memphis where he shot 40 percent. It’s causing grief for the Spurs, who are leaning more on Kawhi Leonard, who’s spending lots of energy guarding LeBron.
The ineffectiveness of Ginobili was heightened Thursday when Wade had a breakout game and showed the spurt and energy that had been missing since April. The Spurs didn’t have an answer for Wade and couldn’t stop him. In the past, Ginobili would’ve served a useful role, but now? Well, right now, the Spurs are trying to hide him as much as possible.
And Ginobili isn’t giving them much choice. The 25 minutes he’s getting need to be reduced and the Spurs should keep favoring Leonard and Danny Green. Those two are earning the faith of Popovich. Ginobili is just too much of a risk now, and has been since hitting a game-winner in the West semis against the Warriors.
“I have to play better, there’s no question about that,” he said. “That responsibility falls on me.”
What the Spurs want to know is whether Ginobili can pull off a throwback performance like Wade did in Game 4. Both players have dealt with injury issues over the past through years and played through them. Ginobili turns 36 next month, though, and unlike Wade, has younger and better players pushing him for crucial minutes. For the first time in anyone’s memory, the Spurs are going deep in the fourth quarter with Ginobili on the bench. That’s a switch, because Ginobili, a fearless player in his prime and even now, loves having the ball with the game on the line.
But the Spurs are turning to Leonard and Green, and even a smaller lineup featuring Gary Neal, rather than Ginobili.
“I think he’s trying to be incredibly unselfish right now,” said Tim Duncan. “I think he’s trying to make the right play at the right time. He’s trying to make the right pass, make the defense move instead of looking more for his own. We need him to be a little more aggressive, be a little more selfish and maybe we can find a way to get him to do that.”
Ginobili’s specialty was using the pick-and-roll to reach the rim for layups and fouls, or shooting his unorthodox fallaway three-pointer. None of that seems to work now, and really hasn’t all post-season, where Ginobili is shooting 37.7 percent.
It’s a sensitive situation because of how much Ginobili has meant to the Spurs over the last decade. He’s still incredibly popular in town; a fan even had Ginobili’s likeness shaved into his hair. But there’s no Big Three anymore with the Spurs unless you mean Duncan, Tony Parker and Leonard. Or Green.
It could be the beginning of the end for a player who beat Team USA on the way to gold in the 2004 Olympics, who has three NBA titles with the Spurs and enjoyed a long stretch as one of the better sixth men in basketball. It happens to everyone, sooner or later, and the victims don’t get to pick the time and the place. For Ginobili, his finish line is looming here in the championship round, where the Spurs need him most.