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.

Jaren Jackson Jr. just snatches ball from shooting Gordon Hayward (video)

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Gordon Hayward thought he had an open transition 3-pointer.

Jaren Jackson Jr. had other ideas.

The Grizzlies big came from behind Gordon and… just took the ball. What a one-handed swipe!

Should this have counted as a block or steal? The official scorer went block with a rebound, which is probably correct – but unsatisfying – with Hayward into his shooting motion.

The Celtics beat Memphis, 119-95.

Dwight Howard enlisting Lakers fans to get Kobe to help him in Dunk Contest

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Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant are not exactly blood brothers for life.

When Howard spent a season with the Lakers back in 2012-13 the two men clashed. To put it kindly. Kobe’s single-minded obsession with winning did not mix well with Howard’s “this needs to be fun — and where are the Skittles” mentality. Fans sided with Kobe while Howard — who pushed hard and came back too quickly from back surgery that season then never got right — became the scapegoat.

Howard is on a redemption tour, having won over Lakers fans this season by simply playing his role and keeping his head down (finally). Now that redemption tour is headed to the All-Star Saturday Night Dunk Contest.

Howard wants Kobe to join him — and is trying to get Laker fans to pressure Kobe to be part of the festivities. From Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

“I’m trying to get Kobe,” Howard said… “So if I can get all the Laker fans to lobby to get Kobe to help me in the dunk contest, that’d be really good. That’d be awesome.”

Sure, because pressuring Kobe and telling him he has to do something is always the best way to motivate him. Good luck with that.

Dwight Howard won the 2008 NBA Dunk Contest dawning a Superman cape and flying high — with Kobe sitting courtside and being impressed.

To be fair, Kobe and Howard get along now, but I’m not about to try and predict Kobe’s next move.

Howard will break out gimmicks, props and tricks come Feb. 15 at the United Center in Chicago for this Dunk Contest. The only question is, will Kobe be one of them?

Here are 15 thoughts from Zion Williamson’s debut (and the rest of our Three Things to Know)

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Here are 15 bullet point thoughts from Zion Williamson’s debut. Zion Williamson impressed in his debut game — 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting, plus seven rebounds, all in just 18:18 of court time. Here are my thoughts from his opening night.

• What were the odds Zion’s first game would feature zero monster dunks but four made threes?

• I can’t watch those four minutes in the fourth quarter enough.

• The four line-drive threes were the story because they were unexpected, but the most impressive play of the night came when Jakob Poeltl blocked his shot, but Zion got the ball back, gut to the other side of the rim and scored. It was his most athletic bucket of the night.

• Can’t blame the Spurs for letting Zion take those threes, he was 1-of-4 from deep in the preseason and he was not a great three-point shooter in college (33.8 percent on a couple a game). The scouting report was to let him shoot. Future opponents will not let him set his feet and take those shots uncontested (the Spurs were in a zone when his run started, which seemed to be a green light in Zion’s mind, other teams will defend him differently).

• Zion said postgame that when he couldn’t move much during rehab, he worked on his shot. It showed — he looked more comfortable from deep than Ben Simmons has (and maybe even the Greek Freak). Zion has a set shot from three, it’s not a quick release or something he can take in motion pealing off a screen, but it doesn’t have to be. Defenders now will have to close out on Zion when he sets his feet, and when they do he can blow by them and attack the rim.

• Pelicans’ assistant coach Fred Vinson worked with Zion, Lonzo Ball, and Brandon Ingram this past year on their shots, and all three now have vastly improved jumpers. Vinson is not getting enough credit.

• Coach Alvin Gentry taking Zion out was painful to watch… and exactly the right thing to do. This is not about “rest” it’s about injury prevention — major injuries are more likely to occur when fatigued muscles cannot provide the support for ligaments and tendons on explosive moves and things snap. Williamson was obviously not in peak game shape (nor should he be expected to be coming off knee surgery), so a minutes limit was there to prevent him from pushing through tired muscles and re-injuring his just-repaired knee (or some other body part). Yes, it sucked as fans, but the goal is to have him play most of New Orleans remaining 37 games this season (and for seasons beyond this one), not to watch him go down in his first game back.

• Clearly, Zion needs to round into game shape (as to be expected for any player coming off knee surgery), but Mark Jackson’s handled the weight topic poorly on the broadcast, buying into the “Zion can’t play at that weight” trope. Zion is a unique athlete. Unless you’re a member of the Pelicans’ medial team that has done extensive testing on Williamson, you’re not in a position to say what his ideal playing weight will be (up or down). Maybe he should play at a lower weight than what he is at right now, maybe not, but this is an issue that should be handled with some delicacy, and Jackson was a Pamplona Bull on the run.

• Between Zion needing to lose weight and Brandon Ingram needing to add it, the Pelicans are a body shamers dream team.

• Williamson did defer too much through the first three quarters, but he mostly looked like a rookie who had not played much and was trying to fit in. The upside is he didn’t force anything. He wasn’t bad, he just wasn’t aggressive.

• Zion’s passing was surprisingly good. He made smart basketball plays passing out of double teams (picking up one good assist on an Ingram drive) and took what the defense gave him.

• Zion’s defense is going to be a work in progress (as it is with every rookie not named Matisse Thybulle). He has the athleticism and instincts to be a good defender, we saw it in the preseason, but in his first game against NBA players going at NBA speed he struggled and made some bad reads. It’s to be expected with any rookie, it’s just going to take time to see what kind of defender he will be.

• Expect to see a lot more Zion as a small-ball five, that seems the most natural fit. However, he did have the gravity to draw defenders, which helped open things up for Derrick Favors to get some first-quarter buckets.

• How well Ingram and Zion play together is the $168 million question for the Pelicans. That’s how much Ingram’s five-year max contract from New Orleans will be worth next summer — and he’s going to get it. The question becomes will Ingram and that contract ultimately get traded because of fit issues? It’s way too early to make that call.

Ja Morant — the Grizzlies point guard running away with Rookie of the Year — came off a similar knee surgery last summer and it took him some time to get his legs under him and start to find how to use his athleticism in the NBA. Now he’s must-watch League Pass television. I expect the same thing out of Williamson as he rounds into form following his knee surgery.

• Bonus bullet point thought: That’s still a loss for the Pelicans to one of the teams they are battling for the final couple of playoff

2) Houston snaps four-game losing streak against shorthanded Nuggets (and they are fine with that). Houston had lost four games in a row (and 5-of-6), then rolled into Denver Wednesday, only to find a beaten-up Nuggets squad. No Jamal Murray (sprained ankle), Paul Millsap (knee), Mason Plumlee (foot), Gary Harris (aductor), or Michael Porter Jr. (back).

This is the NBA, you catch teams when you catch them — and in this case, the Rockets were happy to catch the break. Houston got 27 points from James Harden on just 13 shots, and Russell Westbrook had 28 points, 16 rebounds, and eight assists, and Houston cruised to a 121-105 win.

The Rockets’ offense has struggled of late, enough that it couldn’t cover up the team’s unimpressive defense. On Wednesday everything clicked. The question is, can the Rockets build off this and get back on track?

Denver, for its part, needs to keep its head above water until they get healthy again.

3) Shorthanded Sixers lose another starter in Josh Richardson, Toronto picks up the win. Philadelphia has gone eight games now without Joel Embiid, and now they will need to go a few games without Josh Richardson, too. The Sixers’ wing pulled up four minutes into the game grabbing his left hamstring. He did not return to the game.

Philadelphia fell to 5-3 without Embiid in a 107-95 loss in Toronto. They have tried to win with defense, starting Matisse Thybulle next to Ben Simmons, but when Thybulle picked up a quick second foul on a Kyle Lowry pump fake and had to leave the game, things started to fall apart for the Sixers.

Toronto got 22 from Fred VanVleet and had a balanced attack with six players scoring at least 16 points.

If the playoffs started today, this would be the first-round matchup and Toronto would have the home court. The Raptors keep on winning, and Nick Nurse’s case for Coach of the Year gets stronger and stronger.

With 17 straight points fourth quarter, Zion flashes what could be for New Orleans

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Everyone came for the dunks.

Zion Williamson showed he can be so much more than that — he even has a little Stephen Curry in him.

After sitting through his cautious start, fans in New Orleans — and ones sitting in front of televisions from San Diego to Kennebunkport — got their payoff during the fourth quarter of Williamson’s NBA debut:

Zion absolutely dominated a three-minute stretch of the fourth quarter.

Williamson — a 19-year-old rookie who had missed 44 games coming off knee surgery — was the best player on the court for those minutes, scoring 17 straight points and getting the Pelicans back in a game they had trailed by double-digits for much of the night. And he did it going 4-of-4 from three.

Williamson finished the night with 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting, plus seven rebounds, all in just 18:18 of court time.

It wasn’t enough to get the Pelicans a win; San Antonio got 32 points from LaMarcus Aldridge and the victory 121-117.

Williamson spent the first three quarters looking like a rookie who had not played much, needed to work on his conditioning, and was trying to fit in. He didn’t force anything, made smart basketball plays passing out of double teams, and took what the defense gave him. Zion’s first NBA basket came in the second quarter, a putback off a Nickeil Alexander-Walker miss.

Williamson played cautiously through three quarters, with five points on 2-of-3 shooting, four rebounds but also four turnovers. His teammates were telling him to let go and get in the flow of the offense.

Then in the fourth you could see his confidence grow as Aldridge (and later other Spurs defenders) dared him to hit a three over the top of a zone. Postgame, Zion said during is rehab, when he could not run, he took a lot of standstill jumpers and it paid off. Once Zion knocked one down and his confidence started to swell, he got back to being the attacking, aggressive player everyone expected — and Pelicans fans loved every minute of it.

It’s just 18 minutes of basketball, the definition of a small sample size. But those 18 minutes only whetted our appetite. They weren’t even the appetizer, they were an amuse-bouche. 

But this could be the start of an amazing meal.