So many of the San Antonio Spurs played perfect games last night that it's impossible to pick out a single performance as the one that sealed the franchise's fifth championship. You could point to Patty Mills raining threes, Kawhi Leonard's stunning two-way dominance, or even Tim Duncan's steady hand in the post. But there was one guy who struck first, who started the Spurs' onslaught, and it was the guy who needed it most.
The Spurs were down 22-6 with 5:03 remaining in the first quarter when Manu Ginobili woke up. For his first basket of the game, Ginobili isolated Rashard Lewis on the left wing, backed way, way the hell up—as if a runway to the rim had suddenly laid itself out before him—and jetted through the paint for a bruising and-1 layup. Ginobili drew a charge on the next Heat possession, and followed that up with one of his signature spot-up threes on the right wing, the same wicked shot he's been killing teams with his whole career. Erik Spolestra immediately called timeout, and although the Spurs were still down 10, it felt like they were up three. The end was in sight.
And Ginobili just kept hitting. Late in the second quarter he bull-rushed his way into the paint from just in front of the half-court line, blowing past Rashard Lewis and finishing with a twisting, one-handed reverse layup. And then, of course, there was The Dunk.
What was so great about Manu's performance is that it had nothing to do with ball movement, Gregg Popovich, or the Spurs' mystique. It was just a 36-year-old shooting guard taking the Heat to the playground and challenging them all to 1-on-1 games. Ball in! You young boys can't handle me. Guys like Carmelo Anthony probably dream of making hero buckets like this in an NBA Finals game, and Ginobili did it as an old man on what might be the most unselfish team we've ever seen.
Manu Ginobili needed this, to help his team bring home a championship on his terms. It's important to remember how cooked Ginobili's career looked at the end of last year's finals. He finished Game 6 last year with nine points and eight turnovers, and was the closest thing there was to a goat in a flawless series. After that game, Manu gave one of the most honest and saddest postgame press conferences you will ever see:
And now, a year later, he's found his redemption. It's not easy for any athlete to bounce back from a heartbreaker like the one Manu suffered in 2013, but it's even harder for a guy who waved goodbye to his prime a few years ago. But Manu got his last night, and this year's postgame presser was a happy one. At one point, he was asked how it felt to redeem himself from last year's debacle. He answered like a guy who's never felt more relieved about anything in his life:
So nice. It's hard to explain. I'm not skilled enough to explain properly how we feel. Not only me, I'm pretty sure that Tony and Tim and Pop feel the same way. Last year was a tough one, for all of us. We felt like we had the trophy, that we were touching it, and it slipped away. It was a tough summer. We all felt guilty, we all felt that we let teammates down.
Game 6 ate at Manu Ginobili for a year, and last night he was presented with a chance to erase all of that disappointment and regret once and for all. Some guys might shy away from a moment like that, afraid to repeat their mistakes. Other guys will do something crazy, like try to pull off a riot-inducing dunk in traffic despite being old and relatively bounce-less. Most guys who try the latter will end up compounding their previous failure. Manu Ginobili is not most guys.