SAN ANTONIO — As Manu Ginobili labored through a rough 2013 postseason, shooting below 40 percent and struggling mightily in the NBA Finals, many openly wondered whether his time in San Antonio had run out.
Some even pondered if the 36-year-old — with an odometer overloaded with both international and NBA miles — had played his final game.
Fast forward one year and find a rejuvenated Ginobili back to his old self, a terror off the bench and a game-changer for the Spurs, dominating pockets of this Western Conference Finals series against the Thunder, which sits at 3-2 San Antonio after a dominant 117-89 Spurs blowout on Thursday night.
On Thursday, Ginobili was the star. Needing only 21 minutes, he compiled 19 points, six assists and four rebounds. He hit seven of his nine shots. He hit three of his four threes. San Antonio outscored OKC by 15 points when he was on the court.
“Yeah, yeah, for sure,” Ginobili said when asked if he felt fresher and healthier this year. “I started last postseason after missing three weeks.”
Against the Thunder, Ginobili’s impact hasn’t been limited to Thursday night. For most of this series, he has turned back the clock and dissected the OKC defense.
He had an 18-point Game 1, a 23-point Game 3 and boasts an overall shooting percentage of 57 percent in the five contests. But Thursday’s showing was his most important to date.
With coach Scott Brooks and the Thunder trotting out Reggie Jackson in the starting lineup and a ton of offensive-heavy lineups the past three games, San Antonio was forced to make adjustments. It needed to make OKC pay on the other end.
That meant more Matt Bonner and Boris Diaw, in hopes of spreading Serge Ibaka to the perimeter. But, also, it meant an attacking Ginobili needed to take advantage of Jackson and some other potentially fruitful matchups against the Thunder reserves, who have little chance of staying in front of the creative, quick-twitch lefty.
Using a variety of high screens and crafty moves, Ginobili torched the Thunder’s trap-heavy pressure, splitting double-teams and carving out wide-open lanes.
“Every opportunity to drive, he’s going to challenge our feet and he’s going to drive around us,” Brooks said. “We’re going to have to make sure we’re into him and make sure we stop him from taking straight line drives to the basket. Easier said than done.”
At the end of the third quarter on Thursday, when the game was already out of hand, the Thunder bench had 13 points. Ginobili already had 19. San Antonio’s reserves had 40. The Spurs led by 20.
It was another dominant display of the difference of depth between these two teams, particularly since Brooks was forced to snatch Jackson away from that second-unit.
And it’s a disparity that starts with Ginobili, one of the NBA’s most legendary sixth men who is still doing his thing 12 years after entering the league.
“We have to defend him better,” Brooks said. “He’s a future Hall of Famer. He’s good...He’s ageless. He comes in with great energy. He plays hard. He plays winning basketball.”
And on Thursday, he might be the key reason San Antonio stretched its lead to 3-2 and is on the verge of another NBA Finals appearance.