Photo: Eric Gay/AP

Kawhi Leonard didn’t take the court for the Spurs’ final play of regulation. After Patty Mills inexplicably head faked James Harden with 0.4 seconds left and nailed a shot well after the buzzer, Leonard still didn’t see the court in overtime. The beating heart of the Spurs missed most of the game’s most critical minutes with a tweaked ankle, and yet San Antonio still left Game 5 with a critical 110-107 victory over the Rockets thanks to the heroics of their ageless talisman, Manu Ginobili.

Tim Duncan and Tony Parker have led the line for the bulk of the Spurs’ glory days, but Ginobili has been nearly as integral to the Spurs’ steady excellence. The Argentinian has spent most of his career coming off the Spurs’ bench, from which he’s made three All-Star teams, two All-NBA teams, and was a key cog on four championship teams. Earlier in his career, Ginobili was a floppy-haired terror on the perimeter, an utterly unorthodox shooting guard who created angles that nobody else could see and attacked the rim with abandon. He’s aged out of stardom, though his craftiness is still intact. He had a phenomenal playoffs when San Antonio last won a title in 2014, and he’s only just now stopped taking massive leaps every time he reaches the playoffs. That is, until tonight, when he put forth his best game of this postseason and came up huge.

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Game 5 was probably the most enthralling game of these playoffs so far. Where the first four games of this series were blowouts, Game 5 was tense throughout and neither team ever really broke away, save for a moderate Rockets barrage in the third quarter. The Rockets’ three-point shooters got open looks all night thanks to Gregg Popovich’s insistence on playing big lineups, but they only managed to hit one third of their 48 threes. Without Nene in the middle, the Rockets dug their heels in even further, starting Eric Gordon, giving up on stopping the Spurs from grabbing bushels of offensive rebounds, and playing just one true big man (Clint Capela, who logged 34 minutes) all night. Defensively, they switched on everything.

Before he got hurt, Kawhi Leonard was anchoring the Spurs. He grabbed 15 boards and was giving James Harden legit problems. As a matter of policy, the Rockets did all they could to screen Leonard off of Harden, mixing up screeners and angles to dislodge him. In one sequence, Leonard got switched off of Harden, chased Trevor Ariza away from the three-point line, followed him into the lane, leapt to block a Capela layup, then ran to the other end to score on Harden.

When he went down, it should have been curtains for the Spurs. But Ginobili stepped up, and his second-quarter jam served as a warning. Ginobili quadrupled his playoff average and scored 12 points tonight to go with five assists, seven boards, and a team-high plus-minus of +8. He kicked the fourth quarter off with a huge three and scored the finals points of regulation with a knifing lurch into the lane. Fans haven’t seen much of Ginobili’s slithery pick-and-roll game lately, and he brought it out at a time when the Spurs needed a bucket to stay afloat. This is vintage Ginobili.

In overtime, Danny Green sealed things up with an and-one layup and a deep three, both of which Ginobili assisted. He then got stuck on Harden on the last possession of overtime and he stuffed his potential game-tying three like a varsity player spiking a JV kid’s shot just to make a point.

The Spurs now have two cracks to advance to a rumble with the Warriors, and while Kawhi Leonard’s ankle health is the primary factor in whether or not they’ll get there, they wouldn’t be knocking on the door without Ginobili. He’s only playing 15.5 minutes and averaging 3.7 points, so it’s not as if he is the Manu of old. Tony Parker is out for the playoffs, and the last member of the Spurs’ Big Three still standing suddenly has a much more important role. Good thing he’s been here before.

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