Manu Ginobili drove right in the fourth quarter, faded away, drew the foul and threw up one of those wild, unorthodox, southpaw shots across his body that had no chance. Of course, the ball caught the lip of the rim, bounced twice and went in.
So creative, so clutch, so American.
The Detroit Pistons could not know it, but Ginobili's night at the improv was barely beginning. The Argentine all-star guard dunked on the defending NBA champions on Thursday night, lit them up for three-pointers, drove through and around them until he had put away Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
After a foreigner with the metabolism of the Energizer bunny had led the San Antonio Spurs past the Pistons, 84-69, it became clear: David Stern's international expansion plan is working much too well.
Not to sound provincial or jingoistic but, really, this used to be our game! On U.S. soil, deep in the heart of a red state, a foreigner took over Game 1 of the championship of American pro basketball. Ginobili's speed, improvisation and skill were too much for arguably the NBA's best defensive team. Tim Duncan, he of the Virgin Islands, was money, too. He scored 24 points and hauled in 17 rebounds. Frenchman Tony Parker added 15. That's 65 of 84 points from basketball players not born in the United States. Ugh.
World 1, Naismith's Spiritual Descendants 0.
"Offensively, Manu Ginobili was something else," Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said after cringing every time Ginobili put the ball up. Each time Ginobili rises and fires, he becomes one of those "No, no, no . . . Yes!" players. His bad shots you live with because his clutch shots immediately follow. He seems to have no memory of the last possession or his last miss, declaring himself open when he crosses midcourt. Renowned gunner World B. Free had more of a conscience.
Ginobili was dreadful in the first half, missing five of his six shots, turning over the ball three times and looking almost intimidated by an aggressive, flailing-at-the-ball Detroit defense. He came out in the second half and put his head down, driving the ball to the goal until he found a seam between the Pistons' mound of muscle.
"He gets on those rolls there and Pop understands to let him go," Duncan said. "He does things outside our offense. He breaks things off sometimes, but you have to understand, when he starts to really feel good he's going to make your team better by letting him roll."
"Mah-new! Mah-new!" they chanted at SBC Center, rising and applauding as Ginobili detonated for 22 of his 26 points in the second half, including 15 in the fourth quarter. He made 9 of his last 10 shots for what has become the NBA's poster team for the international game.
Detroit's Chauncey Billups, Rasheed Wallace and Rip Hamilton were all reared and schooled in U.S. hoops and on its playgrounds. Duncan came here from the Virgin Islands, Tony Parker from France and Ginobili from Argentina. They either paid their dues for four years in college like Duncan or cut their teeth internationally. None attended a five-star, sneaker-sponsored summer camp in New Jersey or Indianapolis, in which elite teenagers are fed and fattened up like cattle for market.
This is some diversity push the NBA has going. If San Antonio wins its second title in three years, it will be the first time in NBA history that none of the three best players from the championship team were born in the United States.
We could go deeper and get into how many American-born players, many of whom are black, feel these cats from overseas and beyond are trying to take their jobs, just like the Russians did to the Canadians and U.S. players in hockey. But to go there would be to miss the real issue: Three years into his NBA career, Ginobili has arrived as one of the league's premier postseason players. He went from hot-and-cold supersub to ultraproductive starter, outhustling a team whose championship last season was won solely because of desire.
"The emotional part of this game is so big, it's different to anything else," Ginobili said. "When I started feeling that everything was going so good for me and I was being able to finish or hit a three, I just felt I was, you know, great, couldn't feel better."
Psychologically, the Spurs needed this game much more than the Pistons. A loss would have given San Antonio as many losses at home in the playoffs as it had all season. The Spurs were 38-3 at SBC Center in the regular season and 6-2 in the postseason coming into Game 1. If they had dropped Game 1, who's to say they get back to San Antonio? The Lakers never made it home a year ago after the Pistons became the first team in the 2-3-2 format, adopted in 1985, to sweep the three middle games on their home floor.
A few trends developed early on, one of which was that the Spurs can either beat the Pistons in a scrum or a sprint. They can play fast or deliberate. It doesn't matter. Also, Duncan does not have to average 30 points per game for San Antonio to win. Lastly, Ginobili is three games away from a historic double-double.
Never has a foreign-born player won an Olympic gold medal for his country and an NBA championship for his team in a span of 10 months.
Don't cry for America. Manu Ginobili's circus shots and helter-skelter game lifted the Spurs in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. He is playing a lot like we used to.