Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - In Game No. 101 of a long NBA season, Manu Ginobili earned his first start.
The San Antonio Spurs can win a fifth title in Game 102, and it was in large part due to the play of Ginobili.
Sunday's 114-104 victory over the Miami Heat was the last game played in San Antonio this season. Games 6 and 7 will be in South Beach and if the Spurs' Father's Day win was any barometer, Ginobili will play a pivotal role.
Just as he did in the last three San Antonio championship reigns.
But the reality became a different tale in the summer of 2013. The reality was, Ginobili struggled badly. His athleticism robbed by age, his shooting touch robbed by some other force, Ginobili looked weak at times.
Almost any other coach in the league would've sat Ginobili. The wing spots were being more than admirably filled by Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard.
The former All-Star averaged a meager 7.5 ppg during the Finals and turnovers abounded. All of those pinpoint swing passes that filled up highlight reels and a potential Hall of Fame portfolio found the limbs of the opposition.
Then, by chance, a move made by Heat coach Erik Spoelstra got Ginobili into the starting lineup and much more playing time. In Game 4, Spoelstra inserted Mike Miller into his first five in favor of big man Udonis Haslem.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich benched Tiago Splitter just 47 seconds into Game 4 and in Game 5, it was Ginobili who found himself in the starting five.
And he responded.
Ginobili went for 24 points on 8-for-14 shooting, handed out 10 assists and was the major catalyst in getting San Antonio one win away from another title.
"I didn't expect a 24-point game," he admitted.
And why would he? It was a season high and only the second time in his career he scored that many points and dished out 10 assists.
The story goes that Popovich gave Ginobili a little pep talk, reminding him that he is a future Hall of Famer. Then came the starting gig and the rest was history.
"Manu is a competitor, he just keeps pushing, and he does what he does," said Popovich. "I mean, he's come to practice and worked on his shot. He's seen film. He has confidence in himself that he should just continue to compete. That's what he's done his whole career. And tonight he played his best game in a while. So it was obviously very helpful."
While Pop declined to elaborate on the nature of the conversation, (he doesn't elaborate on much), he did acknowledge that the decision to start Ginobili was two-fold: match up with the smaller Heat lineup and get Ginobili going.
He flew out of the gate with a deep jumper to open the game, seven points and four assists in the opening 12 minutes.
"I needed to make a few shots," said Ginobili. "I had a better overall offensive game and I needed to feel like that."
Ginobili played a lot of point guard with Tony Parker on the bench, and found Green, who is not capable of missing a 3-point shot. Ginobili also took some of the play-making heat off of Parker, whose hamstring is a ticking time bomb waiting to tear.
However, since Ginobili was in the first unit, he also benefited from Parker's play-making.
Ginobili even hit big jumpers when the Heat made things interesting in the fourth quarter. It all came at a perfect time.
Always one of the most popular Spurs, Ginobili began getting criticized by both the media and the fan base.
"I really don't know exactly what was going on. I really don't read what's going on," admitted Ginobili. "I knew I was not scoring much. I try not to care about it. I'm critical enough of myself."
His teammates heard it.
"I was feeling a big game from Manu," said Parker. "For everything he did for the franchise, I thought it was a little bit harsh. I was happy for him."
"We're not a team that points fingers," said Tim Duncan.
In fact, the Spurs are a thoughtful group. Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Popovich have been together for a very long time. This could be the finale in the Finals for this group, and Ginobili was the first to declare that on Saturday when he hinted that retirement was an option this offseason.
Others said they noticed a change in Ginobili while struggling.
"I was angry, disappointed. I felt I wasn't helping the team that much," said Ginobili.
He helped on Sunday and the crowd let him know. The faithful chanted, "Manu- Manu" at him during the second half.
"It felt great when I heard that," he said.
It felt great for them to finally be able to.