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Ginobili steps up game

Posted: Friday, May 27, 2005

SAN ANTONIO — The fastball-like pass that set up a series-winning shot with 0.5 seconds left was gutsy. The 52-foot bank shot in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals was impressive. The behind-the-back reverse layup in the closing minutes of Game 2 was mind-boggling.

Those great plays, all made within the last week, definitely belong on Manu Ginobili's personal highlight film.

But teammate Tony Parker has seen one that tops 'em all.

''When he kicked it with his foot from halfcourt,'' Parker said, smiling, ''that was better.''

That didn't happen in a game, of course. At least, not yet. The way things have been going for Ginobili and the San Antonio Spurs lately, anything seems possible.

San Antonio beat the Phoenix Suns in the first two games of the conference finals on the strength of two incredible fourth-quarter rallies, with their Argentina import in the thick of the action both times. The series shifts to San Antonio for games Saturday night and Monday night.

Injured Phoenix guard Joe Johnson practiced Thursday and said he doesn't ''think there's anything that could keep me off the court'' in Game 3, although stopped short of saying he's definitely playing.

While his return would be a huge boost for the Suns, the Spurs are looking forward to playing before their home fans for the first time in nearly two weeks. Ginobili said he's ready ''to feel those goosebumps they make you feel.'' Funny thing is, San Antonio fans say the same thing about him.

Ginobili is averaging 21.8 points 5.5 rebounds and 4.2 assists this postseason, despite coming off the bench for eight games. He became a super sub after the Spurs lost their playoff opener, then returned to the lineup and scored 39 points four games ago. San Antonio is 4-0 since the change.

''He has been great for us,'' Tim Duncan said.

Coach Gregg Popovich likes having the ball in Ginobili's hands, especially in crunch time, because he knows the 6-foot-6 forward can do so many things — hit a long jumper, drive to the basket, draw fouls or make a smart pass.

Their relationship has evolved since Ginobili arrived three seasons ago. It's no coincidence the Spurs have, too.

In 2003, with Ginobili coming off the bench as a rookie, the goal for San Antonio's offense was to be one point better than its defense allowed; it usually was as the Spurs won the championship. This year, with Ginobili starting for the first time, San Antonio is two wins from returning to the Finals with an offense that's cracked 100 points in seven of its 10 playoff wins.

''I think it was gradual, but steady,'' Ginobili said of his growing role. ''I started doing the little things that every team needs. That was the way to gain Pop's confidence (and) to show your teammates that you are a team player, that you don't care about the stats, that you want to make them better, too, and that you just care about winning.''

Ginobili was rewarded last summer with a $52 million, six-year contract. Since then, he's led Argentina to a gold medal at the Olympics and made his first All-Star team.

''That's just a natural progression for a good player,'' Popovich said. ''As a player matures in the league and understands the system and gets comfortable, if he's good enough, he becomes a go-to guy.''

Ginobili actually is in his 10th year of pro basketball, having spent three in Argentina and four in Italy. He was on his way to consecutive MVPs in the Italian League when Suns coach Mike D'Antoni first saw him.

D'Antoni, who had done some scouting for San Antonio, even talked to Spurs officials about Ginobili before they took him with the second-to-last pick in the 1999 draft.

''I just thought Ginobili was somebody special,'' said D'Antoni, who also saw Ginobili score a career-best 48 points against Phoenix during the regular season. ''He's tough, he's smart, he's quick. He's got it all, and at big moments he plays big. Those are things you don't teach.''

You only have watch Ginobili for a few minutes to notice his energy and passion. In many ways, he's a bigger, left-handed version of Phoenix's Steve Nash — all the way to the length of their hair.

Read what Nash says about Ginobili and it even sounds like what Ginobili might say about Nash: ''I don't think he's the quickest guy in the league, but he's quick, he's skilled, he's extremely clever, he's super tough and he's a gamer.''

Several Phoenix players have another adjective for Ginobili — flopper. Many players are this time of year, but Ginobili winds up sprawled on the court more than most because of his frequent, fearless drives to the basket, as well as any acting he might do.

Legitimately or not, Ginobili has taken and made the second-most free throws among all players this postseason. He's behind only Phoenix's Amare Stoudemire and just ahead of Duncan, two big men who are expected to get fouled a lot.

Still, if there's one thing Ginobili is most gaining a reputation for, it's the unpredictable shots, the ones that prompted both Duncan and Stoudemire to say, ''He's so creative.''

And Stoudemire hasn't even seen Ginobili shoot with his feet.



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