SAN ANTONIO — It was a performance for the aged.
Manu Ginobili was going on 36 and retired.
He had alternated between old, ineffective and downright done in the NBA Finals.
Coach Gregg Popovich, stubborn soul that he is, decided to start his ancient Argentinian swingman anyway — for the first time in San Antonio’s 100-game season.
He did this only in the crucible of the Spurs’ season, Game 5 against the Heat, probably the last hurrah of an era before the home fans, most of whom were worried sick their turn-back-time year was coming to an end.
Then Manu transported himself Sunday night.
His team and this town, the people he sent into an absolute tizzy with a season-high 24 points and 10 rebounds, took the thrill ride with him, and suddenly LeBron James and the Miami Heat are on the ropes.
Ginobili had not had those kind of numbers since 2008. He looked weathered, worn-down in the first four games — about to capitulate every time his drive was stopped.
And he went back anyway, found a place of confidence and calm from another era.
“I needed it,” said Ginobili after the Spurs jumped on the Heat in the second half and took Game 5 by force, 114-104, to forge a 3-2 series lead. “I was having a tough time scoring and I need to feel like the game was coming to me an. It felt great. To feel that I really helped the team get that 20-point lead was a much needed moment in the series.”
Much needed? It was a godsend for San Antonio, who wondered when and if their one-time all-star would make an appearance in the series.
There are few things in sports more compelling than a former star finding something within from another time, when he was younger, faster, better and the entire NBA wasn’t questioning his relevance as a player.
“He did seem dejected,” Tim Duncan said afterward. “He’s an extreme competitor. He wanted to play well. He wanted to play well really badly.”
It’s absurd to think when this season started that the San Antonio Spurs would be one victory in Miami away from stunning LeBron and the defending champions for their fifth championship over three separate decades.
But that’s where we are.
Manu played like Manu, Danny Green demanded the spotlight each time he stepped behind the arc and let fly a beautiful arching rainbow jump shot, and Duncan and Tony Parker played their parts to perfection.
It’s all in doubt, of course, if Ginobili doesn’t have the game he had. In one of the more candid moments for a player laser-focused on a championship, Ginobili himself admitted retirement in the offseason was an option.
“There’s a small chance,” the Spurs’ wingman said Saturday. “It’s not that I’m really considering, but I can never say ‘no’ for sure, because I sometimes consider it. . . . It’s been 18 years doing this. You kind of get tired and you want to enjoy a little more time at home sometimes. You go back to Argentina to see your people, and you think about it.”
He barely made more than three of every 10 shots he took in the first four games. He was shooting just a paltry 34.5 percent from the field, and the Heat was not fooled by either the deceptive fakes that used to freeze so many defenses or the step-back jumpers that he used to take after he had created space against a defender.
The problem was, Ginobili seemed to have lost the speed and strength to separate himself, to open a 15-inch cushion for his running one-handers or his southpaw scoops that bedeviled so many guards and forwards over the years.
He is in the final season of a three-year, $39 million contract. Banged-up, hurt often, it seemed just a matter of time before the end was thought of as a mutual decision for player and team.
And old Manu happened. Not the going-on-36 guy who was outplayed by his counterparts in the playoffs.
But the other end of the Big Three triangle in San Antonio after Duncan and Parker.
He dropped in his first three-pointer from the left baseline to open the game’s scoring. He feinted. He stutter-stepped. He made 8 of 14 shots, 7 of 8 free throws and doled out 10 assists, many to get Duncan going in the first half.
There were pretty bounce passes. Thread-the-needle darts along the baseline. Look-at-the-three-and-then-give-it-up chest passes to Green, who had a better look at the basket.
“I just had a better game,” Ginobili said. “I’m not sure it’s because I started. I made the first two shots and I played with Tony more so I was off the ball. I got to the free throw line more and those things combined got me going.”
How much will Ginobili have left for Game 6? Who cares right now?
This had shades of Joe Montana finding something left in Kansas City at the end of his career, Brett Favre marching Minnesota to an NFC championship game at the end, Michael Jordan’s steal and shot at 35 years old in Utah. He wasn’t exactly George Foreman winning the heavyweight title or Jack Nicklaus winning the Masters in their 40s.
But for one night, he was close to the great young player whom the Spurs took a chance on all those years ago.
The story about him seeing Jordan on week-old highlights in his parents’ Buenos Aires home when he was a child — when he became enraptured by the NBA and gave up soccer — was old and rote by Sunday night.
All the special moments when he teamed with Duncan and Parker to win three titles in 2003, 2005 and 2007 were collecting dust in his memory.
Manu was supposed to be old, irrelevant, done as a big-time player. And he found his game again. Hit big shots, made the right passes, turned an arena into a deafening place of euphoria again.
“Sometimes I do think about retirement,” he said. “But then I say, ‘No, no. I love what I do. I’m very lucky to be in a franchise like this. So I really can’t picture myself being retired already.’ ”
Good. Your teammates need you Tuesday and perhaps Thursday in Miami, where Dwyane Wade or someone else might just be the next to find the fountain of youth.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.