Manu Ginobili surprised by struggles

SAN ANTONIO -- Those interminable nine days off waiting for the start of the NBA Finals, openly decried as "a little bit too long" by Tony Parker, were supposed to help Manu Ginobili more than any other Spur.

They haven't.

As for that hopeful pre-series prediction from Parker that Ginobili has been "saving his best for the Finals" ...

He didn't.

At the very least, Ginobili surely has an explanation for his alarming lack of production more than halfway through the series that one of this century's great playoff difference-makers -- along with Parker and Tim Duncan -- has been dreaming of since the three iconic Spurs last crossed paths with LeBron James on this stage in 2007.

He doesn't.

"Yes," Ginobili concedes, "I am surprised."

He's not alone either.

Asked to explain Ginobili's disturbing and ongoing fade from postseason relevance, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, "If I knew that, I would have already fixed it."

They are trying. Behind the scenes, on top of the feverish stretching and soft-tissue work being done on Parker's strained right hamstring, San Antonio's main men are doing what they can to nudge Ginobili back to that happier playoff place where he stops thinking and just plays.

"I think everybody ... we need to help him to try to get his confidence going," Parker said.

The problem? With Parker, San Antonio knows what it's dealing with. With Manu? The Spurs have to be wondering if there's a fix at this stage to restore a famed first step that has gone missing and some of the shakiest passing and ballhandling we've ever seen from the crafty lefty.

After four patternless games that have often defied reason, Popovich & Co. would have been able to take some comfort from the fact that Dwyane Wade was generating pretty much all the same fears and doubts about what he has left, at 31 -- until his 32-point eruption Thursday night.

It would make perfect sense -- in a series that continues, game to game, to make prognosticators everywhere look foolish -- for Ginobili to follow Wade into the Wayback Machine and come out the other side Sunday night as the Game 5 hero that no one saw coming. Ginobili, though, isn't trying to play through the sort of knee trouble that has hampered Wade for months. If Popovich liked anything about having to wait so long to get back into game conditions after the Memphis sweep, it's the copious amounts of fuel Manu was presumed to have guzzled during all that time off.

"For us, Timmy's Timmy and Tony's Tony ... but Manu's the guy that puts us over the top," Popovich told ESPN Radio on the eve of Game 1. "He's the guy that changes things. He comes off the bench and excites our team. It could be a 3-point shot. It could be a steal. It could be a rebound. He does things that win games. He always has, both overseas and here. He's our X factor."

Throughout these Finals, Ginobili has been repeatedly described by colleagues as the healthiest he's been all season. In a sit-down with ESPN Radio before Game 3, Manu couldn't have said it much clearer.

"My body is not the issue here," Ginobili said. "If I'm not playing good, it's just because I'm not playing good, not because my body is limiting me."

And that's what truly makes the Spurs fret. That combined with the state of Parker's hammy. If the forthcoming two days off can't help ease Parker back to top gear -- or perhaps even if Parker is revived by 48 hours largely devoted to therapy -- San Antonio could really use another playmaker now that it needs to win at least one more game in Miami to claim the franchise's fifth championship.

"I think he's just trying to be incredibly unselfish right now," Duncan said. "I think he's trying to make the right play at the right time. He's trying to make the right pass [and] 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, maybe -- and hopefully we can find a way to get him to do that."

Said Ginobili, who is averaging a startling 7.5 points a game in the series while shooting just 34.5 percent from the field and less than 20 percent from behind the 3-point line: "I wish I could score more, but it's not happening."

He'll have at least two more chances, maybe three, to make something Vintage Manu happen. That's the good news.

There's some historical hope for the Spurs too. They've been tied 2-2 in the Finals twice before and prevailed both times, outlasting New Jersey in six games in 2003 and Detroit in seven games in 2005. Yet the obvious difference is that San Antonio had home-court advantage for Game 6 and Game 7 both times.

Ginobili remembers it all well. In the aforementioned sit-down earlier this week, Argentina's most famous basketball export didn't hesitate to volunteer the story of his first season in the NBA, as a 25-year-old in 2002-03, when the Spurs pulled away from the Jason Kidd-led Nets to make him an instant champion.

"Everything came too quick," Manu said.
"I didn't get to know how difficult it was."

He does now.