In praise of the brilliant, baffling Manu Ginobili

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When I went to San Antonio to write this piece on Gregg Popovich (and, later, this piece on Tim Duncan) I was told, time and again, that the most popular San Antonio Spur in town, by far, is Manu Ginobili. At first, I found it a bit curious. I mean, Ginobili has been a terrific player, no question, but he’s certainly not Tim Duncan — who is the best, well, the best whatever-position-he-plays (big-power-center-forward-postman) in the history of professional basketball.

Manu is an amazing scorer and distributor and shooter, but he does not seem quite as much the force of nature that is Tony Parker, who is flashier and a bit less mercurial and speaks with a cool French accent and was married to Eva Longoria.

But, again and again, people said they loved Manu most of all … and watching him again these last few weeks I think I’ve figured out a reason why. I think there’s something about Manu Ginobili that is easy to recognize in ourselves. In the end,we might not connect with the consistent, almost numbing, every day brilliance of Tim Duncan, every move right out of a coach’s clinic, every game a perfect repeat of the one before. That kind of greatness may leave us wonderstruck but, like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, it is hard to relate to.

MORE: Duncan, man of mystery … and fundamentals

And so it goes with Tony Parker’s blurring quickness — could we ever identify with a player who, at any point, can simply run around LeBron James? He’s so quick, so mind-blowingly quick, that sometimes he skips a video frame. He’s an optical illusion, and when watching him makes one of those moves you might involuntarily gasp, then pause for an instant to let the mind catch up, then explode in a croak that is half cheer, half disbelief. But, can you envision yourself — even with a few extra helpings of talent — making that move yourself?

Ginobili meanwhile — he’s utterly human. He makes preposterous blunders. He dishes no-look passes that blast the mind. He takes ludicrous shots. He makes some of them. He seemingly wins games singlehandedly. He seems to lose games all by himself too. At times, he seems like the gunner who shows up at the gym and takes every shot. At other times, he seems like the one guy on the floor who sees the game clearly, like he’s wearing Terminator goggles.

Obviously, you only have to look at the last two NBA Finals games to see the contrast. In Game 4 against Miami, Ginobili was a rare kind of abysmal. The numbers don’t quite quantify it — he shot 1-for-5, missed all three of his three-pointers, committed four fouls and one turnover. It’s not good, but it doesn’t tell the story. Maybe this does: Minus-22. That was how his team fared against Miami when he was on the floor. They were outscored by 22 points. There was something about Ginobili in Game 4 that seemed almost jinxed. He was like that guy Mayhem in the insurance commercials.

And Game 5? Well, you already know: Brilliant. Amazing. Spectacular. Ginobili started for the first time all season — seriously, Gregg Popovich should be given some sort of basketball knighthood and just wear robes when he’s on the sidelines — and he made eight of 14 shots, scored 24 points, dished 10 assists, added a steal and a couple of rebounds, and yes, this time he was plus-19. The Heat had no idea what to do when he was on the floor.

MORE: Pop — the bully, the buddy, the winner

The extremes are greater now that Ginobili is older and his body is beat up, but really this has always been true of him.  He has always been great and terrible, unstoppable and un-goable. Thirty two times in his career, he scored 30-plus points. One hundred thirty times he has played at least 20 minutes and scored single digits. He’s had nine games with double digit assists, and 10 games with double digit rebounds, and almost exactly as many when he had no rebounds (10) and no assists (13). He takes dives that are sometimes embarrassing, and he also makes no excuses and points at himself when things go bad. He ranges from the best player on the floor to a very good player to an OK player to invisible to car wreck.

And watching this, night after night, I can see how that gets inside you. Just when you think he’s shed the inconsistencies of the past, he has a game that makes you want to poke out your own eyeballs. Just when you wish the Spurs would just get rid of him, he saves a season with some bit of transcendent genius. In a weird way, it’s like the relationship with your kid. One minute, you want to ship them off to boarding school. The next minute, they bring you to a level of joy that never seemed possible.

I think now of a Spurs fan who tweeted me after Game 4. I had cracked wise about how great Dwyane Wade was in that game and how dreadful Ginobili had been. A brilliant reader named Ray Bailey tweeted back:

And so it was. See, that might be the best part of being a fan of a player — when you know them so well, so deeply, that you sense their patterns and feel their pain and know their rhythms. San Antonio certainly treasures Tim Duncan for being so reliably awe-inspiring and San Antonio certainly adores Tony Parker for being a wizard capable of powerful magic.

But you could see how it is something a little bit different with Ginobili. They have lived with him, died with him, screamed at him and blessed his name. He could cost them Game 6 or he could win them Game 6. They know him, maybe, at a deeper level. And at some point, with Manu, there’s really nothing left to do but love the guy.

After Zion Williamson injury, Donovan Mitchell notes risk without reward

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Hype for rival North Carolina visiting Duke on Wednesday night was near an all-time high — secondary ticket prices were pushing Super Bowl prices. It was on national television. A lot of people were making money off of this, starting with the two universities.

Then Duke star and lock No. 1 pick Zion Williamson had to leave the game with a knee injury (later described as a knee sprain).

Utah Jazz wing Donovan Mitchell wanted to remind everyone Williamson was not among the people making money.

Luka Doncic then reminded everyone there is another path.

The NCAA makes its money off the archaic notion of amateurism, that myth fuels the profits major universities rake in off their revenue sports. Keeping that myth alive creates the underground market where players are bribed with shoe money or by boosters (or coaches) to come play at specific universities. It’s that myth that needs to die for the system to change. The issue of paying players is not a simple one — college softball players spend just as much time perfecting their sport and face the same restrictions, shouldn’t they be compensated as well? That said, there’s enough money for everyone if done right. A first step might be to allow Williamson and other stars to be able to profit from their name and likeness while in college without losing their eligibility.

Or, more basketball players may just start choosing Europe or other paths.

76ers coach Brett Brown says he doesn’t expect rookie Zhaire Smith to play in NBA this season

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Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons.

Zhaire Smith?

A few recent 76ers first-round picks missed their entire first professional season due to injury. Smith, the No. 16 pick in last year’s draft could join them.

Smith has missed the entire season so far with a broken foot then allergic reaction. He just returned to practicing with the 76ers, but maybe not in time to play for them this season.

Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

If the 76ers clinch their playoff seed before the regular season ends, I wouldn’t be surprised if Smith plays for them. But meaningful minutes seem unlikely.

Philadelphia is trying to win now, and a rookie who entered the NBA relatively raw then missed so much time is unlikely to help.

That said, backup wings James Ennis and Jonathon Simmons aren’t exactly reliable options. If everything breaks right for Smith – essentially the opposite of his season to date – maybe, just maybe, he plays for the 76ers this season.

Warriors vs. Bucks or Raptors betting favorite to be NBA Finals matchup

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Who will we see in the NBA Finals come June?

The West looks cut and dried — if the Warriors are healthy, it’s hard to imagine any other team in that conference giving them too much trouble.

The East? That’s wide open. A good case can be made for Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, or Milwaukee finding their way in. (For a more detailed breakdown, listen to the latest PBT Podcast where Keith Smith of Yahoo Sports and myself break down the East in more detail.)

The bookmakers over at BetOnline put together these odds on potential Finals matchups, and after the first four options the odds get pretty long.

Milwaukee Bucks vs Golden State Warriors 9/2
Toronto Raptors vs Golden State Warriors 9/2
Boston Celtics vs Golden State Warriors 5/1
Philadelphia 76ers vs Golden State Warriors 5/1
Indiana Pacers vs Golden State Warriors 28/1
Brooklyn Nets vs Golden State Warriors 33/1
Boston Celtics vs Houston Rockets 40/1
Milwaukee Bucks vs Houston Rockets 40/1
Philadelphia 76ers vs Houston Rockets 40/1
Toronto Raptors vs Houston Rockets 40/1
Charlotte Hornets vs Golden State Warriors 50/1
Detroit Pistons vs Golden State Warriors 50/1
Miami Heat vs Golden State Warriors 50/1
Orlando Magic vs Golden State Warriors 66/1
Washington Wizards vs Golden State Warriors 66/1
Boston Celtics vs Oklahoma City Thunder 80/1
Milwaukee Bucks vs Oklahoma City Thunder 80/1
Philadelphia 76ers vs Oklahoma City Thunder 80/1
Toronto Raptors vs Oklahoma City Thunder 80/1

A few quick thoughts on that list:

• Interesting that the Sixers and Celtics are just a little behind the Bucks and Raptors in the minds of the bookmakers.

• I don’t know that I’d have Houston in front of Oklahoma City as the second-best option in the West. Not this season. The Thunder have the defense and star power to do playoff damage.

• If you’re thinking about putting money on Washington or Orlando to make the Finals — against anyone — just donate that money to charity instead. That way it will do some good.

Likely No. 1 pick Zion Williamson leaves Duke-North Carolina game with knee injury

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Zion Williamson will probably be the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA draft.

He’s a generationally good prospect. The rest of this draft also looks relatively weak.

In fact, Williamson has such a stranglehold on the top pick, some have suggested he sit out the rest of his freshman season.

His injury during Duke’s game against North Carolina tonight will only heighten those calls.

Duke:

Hopefully, Williamson is OK.

And hopefully, the system changes. The NCAA is a cartel in which schools conspire to cap compensation for athletes at a scholarship plus some expenses. In a free market, Williamson would earn far more.

Unfortunately, it probably can’t be both. If Williamson escapes this without major injury, the status quo will likely endure.

But, if this injury even allows him to play again this season, it might be a warning shot that causes him to sit until he can enter the NBA draft.

Again, I hope he’s healthy enough to make that decision for himself.