“I had such low expectations,” Manu Ginobili said as he was leaving the arena Monday night, and he wasn’t being modest.
His coaches had low expectations, too.
They’d seen him in practice looking like a guy who, well, had spent the past three months playing with his twins. To them, Ginobili appeared to be weeks away from being himself, and this scared them as they faced a 66-game season.
So what happened Monday stunned them. If Ginobili can play this way this quickly, don’t all their plans change?
The Spurs felt the opposite emotion last spring. Then, when Ginobili’s right elbow bent the wrong way, so did the Spurs’ locker room.
One coach admitted this over the summer: While they said the right things, the players lost their belief when Ginobili went down.
While all of the Spurs had something to do with a remarkable regular season that produced 61 wins, Ginobili had something to do with all of them. On his way to All-Star resurgence, Ginobili led the Spurs as he has Argentina. The pieces fit because of him.
That’s also a reason many in the league don’t see the Spurs as legitimate contenders anymore. Most forget the Spurs lost close games to the ? Grizzlies last season either without Ginobili or with Ginobili’s right arm in a brace. Most remember Ginobili’s age, which is 34.
Ginobili is certainly aware of the reality, too. After leading Argentina’s national team to an Olympic berth in September, he opted to rest his body over the next three months.
Given his history, it was a smart move. But the cost was clear, and his two preseason games showed that. Then, Ginobili shot a combined 7 of 22 from the field and did not make a 3-pointer in four attempts.
“I’m not exhausted, I’m just out of basketball shape,” Ginobili said at the time. “When I want to do a step-back, I’m out of rhythm. I still need to fine-tune it.”
Nearly everyone in the league has a similar excuse today, not just the Mavericks. Everybody wanted more preseason games and more time, and Memphis showed the same needs Monday; the same team that was careful with the basketball last spring in the playoffs ended with 24 turnovers.
“It happens,” Ginobili said. “It was the first game of the season, and it goes either way. We all need time to get in shape.”
Ginobili thought he would need more time. He said he went into the game thinking he would “take it easy,” and the first quarter fit with that.
“What did I take, one shot?” he asked afterward.
But then something happened, and he listed what likely got to him: “The fans, adrenaline, the pressure.”
Soon, he was taking charges and rebounding and finding cutters. A high, arcing 3-pointer fell, and suddenly he had returned to last season.
Ginobili’s behind-the-back pass to the rookie, Kawhi Leonard, all but demanded Leonard make the following 3-pointer. “It was one of those plays that happen every once in a while,” Ginobili said, when they seem to happen with him every game.
When he sat down, the Grizzlies pulled closer. And then Ginobili returned as if the lockout had never happened.
Ginobili gave Rudy Gay a ball fake, drawing a foul on 3-point shot. He made all three free throws, then drove again for another two free throws. He followed that by finding Tim Duncan on a cut, then led a break for another score.
Then there’s this for his low expectations: A steal and dunk to finish his night.
“I thought they executed much better than I expected,” Gregg Popovich said afterward.
The “they” was likely Ginobili.