By Jeff McDonald
Manu Ginobili looked sharper Sunday than he had at any other point throughout the playoffs.
And that was before he ever set foot on the floor at the ATT Center.
A few hours before tipoff of Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, Ginobili — whose sartorial style might best be described as slacker chic — strolled into the locker room wearing a dapper gray sport coat over his button-down dress shirt.
It wasn’t until later that night, after he had Pied-Pipered a come-from-behind 101-98 victory over Oklahoma City, that Ginobili began to regret his choice of threads.
“It’s probably going to be the first and last time of the season,” Ginobili said, squinting in the glare of the TV lights. “I’m sweating like a pig.”
In all other respects, Ginobili proved ready for his close-up. With the chips down in the fourth quarter, the Thunder did not.
Ginobili broke from his playoff scoring slump — (alternate take: what slump?) — for a season-high 26 points, including 11 in the fourth quarter, to help the Spurs overcome a nine-point deficit and deny OKC a golden ticket to the first lead of the series.
It was vintage Ginobili, at a moment when the Spurs desperately needed it, their 19th consecutive victory in dire jeopardy.
“We started to count on him for a long stretch there,” Tim Duncan said. “He really did it for us.”
In his first game against OKC this year — he missed all three meetings in the regular-season — Ginobili showed the Thunder what they had been missing.
He was 3 of 5 from the 3-point line and 5 of 5 from the foul stripe, all his free throws coming in the fourth.
Two classic Ginobili drives in the final 1:57 essentially finished off OKC. The capper, in which he split a pair of defenders before finding the rim, put the Spurs up 96-89 with 1:11 to go.
“That’s Manu’s game,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s somebody we depend on to create and make things happen.”
Tony Parker added 18 points, six assists and a season-high eight rebounds, while Duncan had 16 points and 11 rebounds for his fifth double-double of the postseason.
Harder-earned than most, the victory gave the Spurs claim to one of the fourth-longest winning streaks in NBA history. Heading into the fourth quarter, with the Thunder up nine and rolling, that streak seemed on life support.
OKC already had forced 14 first-half turnovers, undermining any chance the Spurs had of generating offense, and Kevin Durant was heating up on his way to 27 points and 10 boards.
His team down seven, Popovich called a timeout and uttered the phrase soon likely to show up on bootlegged T-shirts across the Alamo City: “I want some nasty.”
Popovich got what he asked for, most obviously from Stephen Jackson, who spent every second of the final frame mugging Durant, then threw in a game-breaking 3-pointer for good measure.
But the Spurs also got a dose of nasty from Ginobili, who helped engineer a 30-11 run that flipped the game.
“Manu, I’m never worried about him,” Jackson said. “When it’s nut-cutting time, when we need him, we knew he’s going to be there.”
Ginobili came into the night averaging 11.3 points and shooting 25 percent from 3-point range in the postseason. There were signs early a breakout was in play.
Not long into his initial shift of the first quarter, Ginobili slithered for a few Ginobili drives. At the horn, he threw in an off-balance 3-pointer, then opened the second quarter with another.
“That’s when we knew,” Jackson said. “He was rolling.”
The last time Ginobili scored this many points: Game 5 against Memphis last postseason. He had 33 in an elimination game.
At times, Sunday had that feel. Had Ginobili been saving himself for this moment?
“I’m not that good,” he said. “It just happened. I don’t know how exactly.”
It’s a question the Thunder likely will be asking themselves up until tipoff of Game 2 on Tuesday. After losing control late in Game 1, Oklahoma City left the arena looking for reasons to hope.
“(The Spurs) are playing the best basketball in the league,” OKC coach Scott Brooks said. “And we were right there.”
The difference was Ginobili, who traded in his dress jacket for a superhero’s cape, just in the nick of time.
SPURS VS. THUNDER
Western Conference finals
(Spurs lead best-of-7 series 1-0)
Game 2: Tuesday – Spurs vs. Thunder, 8:00 p.m. TNT
Game 3: Thursday – Spurs @ Thunder, 8:00 p.m. TNT
Game 4: Saturday – Spurs @ Thunder, 7:30 p.m. TNT
*Game 5: Monday June 4 – Spurs vs. Thunder, 8:00 p.m. TNT
*Game 6: Wednesday June 6 – Spurs @ Thunder, 8:00 p.m. TNT
*Game 7: Friday June 8 – Spurs vs. Thunder, 8:00 p.m. TNT
– All times Central