SAN ANTONIO — Nobody’s bottling it yet in San Antonio.
But Patty Mills described the extra kick provided by the inspired play of 39-year-old Manu Ginobili as the “grandpa juice” that fueled the San Antonio Spurs‘ reserves to high-octane production in the team’s 116-103win over the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 5 of the Western Conference playoffs.
The victory gave San Antonio a 3-2 series lead with Game 6 set for Memphis on Thursday night.
“He brought that grandpa juice, [which] is what I call it, and we all followed,” Mills said. “It’s inspiring. We shouldn’t wait for him to do that before we get into gear. But it really is inspiring when you see him dive on the ball, putting his body on the line, hard drives, hard cuts. It gets us all going. We shouldn’t need that to get going, but he’s a hell of a player, hell of a competitor. It trickles down, and we feed on it for sure.”
Make no mistake: Of this group of bench players that outscored Memphis’ reserves 46-30, Mills owns the title of hero, having knocked down 5-of-7 from deep for the game, including 4-of-4 for 12 points in the fourth quarter, as he finished with a career postseason-high 20 points.
Ginobili scored 10 points, on 4-of-6 shooting, knocked down a 3-pointer, dished three assists and gobbled up three steals. But perhaps the most inspiring part of the performance stemmed from how Ginobili rebounded from abject failure.
Over the first four games of the series, Ginobili hadn’t scored a single point, having gone 0-for-15 from the field in that span. In Memphis, before Game 4, Ginobili admitted he wasn’t feeling totally comfortable. Then, just before Game 5, everything changed.
“You try to isolate,” said Ginobili, when explaining how he dealt with the slump. “It’s not that I read, but I know how my games have been. There are games like Game 3 and 4, the ones we lost. You’re a little harder on yourself because you know the team needed you more. It was tough. I’d never been through a four-game slump like that. It was great today to feel important, to feel useful. I needed one like this. I was feeling good. I don’t know what was the difference. I guess I relaxed a little more. I said I didn’t care if I was in a slump or made shots or not. It’s not like the team needs me to score to win.”
Ginobili connected on his first basket of the series on a driving 6-footer off the glass with the Spurs down 14-8 with 4 minutes, 40 seconds left in the first quarter, and hit the ensuing foul shot for a quick start. Ginobili followed up just 33 seconds later with a 3-pointer that tied the score at 14, before dropping in a finger roll that put the Spurs ahead by five points (19-14).
“I’m tired of him,” said Grizzlies coach David Fizdale, who faced Ginobili several times during his days as an assistant with the Miami Heat. “He can go back to Argentina, too [when he retires]. I don’t even want to see him on the sideline. He has hurt me so many times. He’s just a fantastic pro. I really have a lot of respect for all of those guys. We have ripped each other’s hearts out enough times in this business that you just have a deep respect for guys like that. Manu is one of those guys. Tony [Parker], and the rest of those guys that I battled for titles. Those guys aren’t going to lay down. We really have got to dig in and refocus. The good part is I have a locker room full of guys that really want to come back here to play Game 7. Game 6 is obviously our Game 7.”
Told of Fizdale’s comments, Ginobili, in typical fashion, stepped back in surprise before cracking a joke.
“Tired of me?” Ginobili said. “I’ve been helping him. He should be tired of Kawhi [Leonard].”
Perhaps so, as Leonard blistered the Grizzles for 28 points with six assists and a steal.
But even Leonard lauded Ginobili for his “great competitive nature,” and the fact that “he wants to win every game.”
Leonard scored each of San Antonio’s final 16 points in regulation during an overtime loss at Memphis in Game 4, in which he played 44 minutes. Mills mentioned at practice on Monday that the Spurs needed to get the forward some help.
After all, the reserves had provided plenty of assistance throughout the regular season. San Antonio’s bench outscored or matched the production of their opponent’s reserves in 57 games during the season, including 22 of the past 27 games. The Spurs’ reserves ranked No. 1 in assists per game (10.4), and led the league in 3-point percentage (.402).
Leonard made 7 of 10 from 3-point range in San Antonio’s Game 4 loss at Memphis, while the rest of the team connected on 2 of 20 attempts from deep. San Antonio’s backups went 7-for-23 from the field in the loss.
“That energy that we all brought off the bench is what we need to be able to do to help Kawhi, to help LaMarcus [Aldridge] and lift pressure off them because they’re doing a hell of a job,” Mills said. “They’re busting their behinds to help the team and we need to lift our weight as well. What we did tonight on both ends of the floor, as a bench group, is what we need; an aggressive mindset on the offensive end, getting into the paint, moving the ball, finding open shooters. On the defensive end, playing physical, getting up into them, and out of their rhythm. I thought we did that tonight.”
Ginobili served as the bench’s catalyst.
Late in the third quarter when he dove to the floor to try to wrest away a loose ball from Vince Carter, the veteran hopped back up with a pink abrasion under his right eye, and a thunderous round of applause from the near-capacity crowd at the AT&T Center, chanting “Manu, Manu, Manu.”
“I get the chants in the most awkward situations,” Ginobili said.
Yet, in this instance, the timing seemed perfect.