SAN ANTONIO — Manu Ginobili was picking apart the Heat in Game 1 — 16 points on 10 shots, plus 11 assists. He was attacking off the pick-and-roll, making sharp passes to a rolling Tim Duncan or Tiago Splitter, plus he was getting open looks (7 of his 10 shot attempts were on uncontested looks, a sign of smart play and good ball movement).
His influence on the outcome of Game 1 was massive — but it was very different from the way he would have influenced a game just a few years ago.
The Spurs offense has evolved, and more importantly so has the 36-year-old Ginobili as he has aged. He influences outcomes much more with his mental game now.
“He’s still Manu, but he’s not the Manu he was a few years back where he could take over games in an instant,” Danny Green said.
It all started a few years back when Gregg Popovich decided to change the offense, picking up the tempo and turning the keys over more to his guards Tony Parker and Ginobili. Popovich saw his team’s roster, saw the direction the league was moving (with more pick-and-rolls and shots early in the clock) and became an early adopter.
“When you look at tapes of how we played in the ’02-03 season, we were very different,” Ginobili said. “We were pretty much a team of going past half court, feeding Tim (Duncan), space around and try to get something out of that.
“Now we try to be way more mobile and move the ball much better, more passes. And I think in the last few years we did it so much better. Everybody is feeling important. Everybody is feeling that they are helping the team do better. It’s been a fun change to be part of.”
Popovich saw it as a trade off.
“We’re not as good as we used to be defensively,” he said of his aging roster. “So if that’s going to diminish, you need to do something at the other end of the floor to make up for it. We changed our pace, and the way we approach things at the other end of the floor to make up for what we’re going to lose defensively. That’s the bottom line.”
Ginobili said the new offense works because it is “more unpredictable.”
But there were other adjustments needed for Ginobili — father time was catching up with him.
Ginobili was always a crafty player, but people underestimated his athleticism, his ability to get by his man, get into the paint and cause problems. Age ultimately robs all players of that, some just adjust better than others.
“I had to learn to play with less explosiveness in my legs,” Ginobili said. “Before my game depended a lot on my ability to go by my defender or attack one-on-one, or run more in transition. But now I know I can’t do that, or I can do that for a few minutes and then I run out of juice.
“So I had to develop more my passing ability, my understanding of the game and the system. The fact that you get to understand the system very well helps because you know where your teammates are going to be in each situation. The things you get with experience.”
That evolution was not always smooth.
“Last year he was more aggressive and trying to take over some games sometimes and Pop had to tell him ‘you can’t do it all at once or do it by yourself,’ you got to trust your teammates,” Green said. “And he did last year for the most part. But he still found himself being the guy who tries to take over. And he’s capable of doing it, and some nights he’s not, when he’s not shooting it well. But he’s been very consistent this year trusting everyone around him, finding guys, and playing his part.”
It was the step needed to not only get the Spurs back to the NBA Finals but to make the Spurs a bigger threat to the Heat — last season Miami’s pressure defense caused some ugly games for Ginobili. He had eight turnovers in the painful Game 6 loss.
It’s just one game, but Ginobili handled the Heat’s pressure with much more aplomb in Game 1.
“(Heat defenders’) hands and their blitzes, they didn’t bother me as much as last year in some games,” Ginobili said. He added that with that he was sharper hitting cutters with his passes.
It’s all just part of the evolution of Manu Ginobili.