“He was a stud,” Popovich said after the Spurs’ 110-107 overtime victory, which gave them a three-games-to-two lead in their best-of-seven series.
First, there was the dunk, which Ginobili described as a sort of out-of-body experience: a wrong-footed, soaring slam as he sliced between defenders late in the first half. Nobody saw it coming. Not the Rockets, who took halfhearted swipes at the ball as Ginobili traveled to the rim in his time machine. Not the Spurs’ Danny Green, who called the dunk “one for the record books.” And not even Ginobili.
“That was very unexpected,” he said. “I don’t know. I just wanted to go hard at the rim, and I found myself pretty close. So I went for it. But I didn’t expect to see one of those in the playoffs.”
From that point forward, Green said, he could sense that Ginobili was “locked in,” that he had been sipping some sort of magic potion that his teammates call Grandpa Juice. Sure enough, Ginobili remained engaged through the final possession of the game, when he preserved the win by blocking a 3-point attempt by the Rockets’ James Harden. As Harden rose for the shot, Ginobili reached over the top with his left hand and stripped the ball away.
“I tried to bother him as much as I could, and I found myself very close to the ball, so I went for it,” Ginobili said. “It was a risky play, but it was also risky to let him shoot.”
Ahead of Game 6 on Thursday night in Houston, the Spurs are holding themselves together with a combination of duct tape and chewed gum. They lost Tim Duncan to retirement before the start of the season. They lost Tony Parker, their starting point guard, when he ruptured his left quadriceps tendon in Game 2 against the Rockets. And they lost Kawhi Leonard, their do-everything forward, to an ankle injury late in Game 5. Leonard watched overtime from the bench.
“He didn’t want to come out, obviously,” Popovich said of Leonard. “We let him play a little while, just to see what it was like, but it was obvious that he couldn’t go.”
Leonard’s status for Game 6 is unclear. He said he was planning to play, but even if he does, his effectiveness is likely to be diminished.
That will be playoff game No. 12 for the Spurs, who are rapidly shedding parts. The Golden State Warriors, meanwhile, needed only eight games to advance to the conference finals after sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers and the Utah Jazz in the first two rounds.
But the mistake, as always, is to underestimate the Spurs, to take their resolve for granted. On Tuesday, as they worked to slow an opponent with a plutonium-fueled offense, they proved it again.