Manu Ginobili falls down. A lot.
Want proof? Focus on Ginobili's play in The NBA Finals. Or go back to Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, a home win over the Suns that gave San Antonio immutable control over the series.
Barely three minutes had elapsed in the game, yet there is Ginobili, all 6-foot-6, 220 pounds of him, picking off an offensive rebound in the midst of players both bigger and stronger. He first stretches past Shawn Marion to secure the rebound and stumbles down as he does. He gets up, finds himself surrounded by defenders and recovers just quickly enough to fire a pass back to the halfcourt line for Bruce Bowen.
As he throws the pass, Ginobili goes crashing to the hardwood yet again, with a bit more force this time. Now, there are players in the NBA who go entire 82-game seasons without once allowing their bodies to hit the ground.
But here's Ginobili, in the span of three seconds in this critical playoff game, taking two tumbles and doing so with disconcerting eagerness. It's not just that he falls -- it's that he seems to want to fall. Little wonder teammate Brent Barry calls Ginobili "El Contusione."
"He likes it," says Spurs forward Robert Horry. "That's just the way that guy plays, always going hard, always diving, jumping, doing whatever he has to do. He has a lot of energy, that's for sure."
Ginobili has been using that energy wisely. Few players have raised their profiles in the league -- maybe Dwyane Wade, maybe Amare Stoudemire -- more than Ginobili has over the past six weeks. He is a human maraca, best when in motion, most noticeable when thumping against something solid. He gets under the skin of his foes and was the focus of a postgame rant by Nuggets Coach George Karl in the first round.
Ginobili also uses his energy to accentuate contact. In the conference semifinals, Sonics guard Ray Allen said, "What he does, when someone bodies him or puts an arm on his head, his head always flops. So then his hair goes wild, and it looks like someone just murdered him."
That's not to say Ginobili is all style, no substance. His performance in the postseason has more than justified the six-year, $52 million investment the Spurs made in him last offseason. As San Antonio faced fast-break attacks from Denver, Seattle and Phoenix in the playoffs, Ginobili's open-court skill on both ends of the floor became more important to the Spurs. He shot 51.2 percent from the field and 46.2 percent on three-pointers in the first three rounds. He is averaging 21.8 points in the playoffs, up from 16.0 in the regular season. He also has raised his averages in assists (4.3 in the playoffs) and rebounds (up to 5.8).
But there is much more to Ginobili than the numbers in the box score.
It's not just the layup that he converts for two points; it's that he dribbled behind his back to beat two defenders to get that layup.
It's that, early in the fourth quarter of Game 3, he came from 25 feet away to outrace Quentin Richardson for a loose ball, diving headfirst when Richardson merely leaned down for the pickup.
It's that, in Game 3, El Contusione went to the floor eight times. He did it seven times in Game 4 and seven more times in the clinching fifth game in Phoenix (after which, he wound up limping with a thigh contusion).
Ginobili is not doing all of this to have stories written about him.
"Everything he does," says Suns point guard Steve Nash, "is aimed at winning. He might make some interesting attempts, but he is not doing it for show."
Now, with the stakes higher and with the defense in The Finals sure to be tighter, Ginobili figures to be scuffing some serious maple (that's what basketball floors are made of, as Ginobili surely knows). The tougher defense that is sure to come as the Spurs chase yet another title is no problem -- that's how Ginobili wants it. Give him a loose ball and he will dive. Throw him an elbow and he will act as though there's an assault in progress.
That's what makes Ginobili lovable and what makes him nearly unique in the NBA -- he throws his body around with an utter lack of concern for both bone and organ. Yes, Manu Ginobili falls down, but it is because he takes so many falls that his star is on the rise.
With 5 minutes 36 seconds to go in the decisive fifth game against the Suns, Ginobili had gotten himself in an awkward position. He is guarding Stoudemire, the Suns' 6-10 dynamo of a center, and he is overmatched. Ginobili is fighting hard to push Stoudemire out of the lane. When the entry pass comes to Stoudemire, Ginobili does all he can -- he stretches out toward the ball and falls to the floor with a ka-lump-LUMP that is audible all the way to America West Arena's rafters. It works. Ginobili is on the floor, but Stoudemire is unable to get to the entry pass, which skips out of bounds.
Bigger, stronger players do not intimidate Ginobili. When you're the son of a coach -- Ginobili's father, Jorge, coached both Manu and his two older brothers, Sebastian and Leandro -- you learn that maximum effort is the only option.
When you play in Argentina, especially in the wind-swept region of Patagonia where Ginobili is from, you learn to hit the floor. Weather in Patagonia -- not to mention a widespread preference for soccer fields -- prevents kids from playing much outdoor basketball, so the kids play indoors. It's much easier to plop hard on a wood floor than concrete.
That, perhaps, is one reason Argentines such as Ginobili and Bulls forward Andres Nocioni have established a reputation for their countrymen -- tough, hard-nosed and fearless. That description certainly fit in the 2004 Olympics, when Argentina outhustled the rest of the world to win the gold medal.
"When you come from Argentina," Nocioni says, "all you know is playing hard."
As Ginobili prepared to head into The Finals for the second time in his three-year career, he was grateful for some time off.
The Spurs had eight days between the end of the conference finals and the start of The Finals. Rest was more of a concern than rust because Ginobili spent four seasons (and was twice named MVP) playing in Europe's Italian League, where, "We would play a game maybe once a week, maybe with five days off between," Ginobili says, smiling. "I like that schedule."
No surprise there. San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich says he worries about playing Ginobili too much because it's not in Ginobili's nature to pace himself. He has only one pace, and it's fast. Seattle Coach Nate McMillan says that though he admires Ginobili's fearlessness, he wonders if it's possible for Ginobili to avoid some kind of serious injury. "He's one of those guys who, at age 50, won't be able to walk," McMillan says.
The thigh bruise Ginobili suffered against Phoenix was just one in a litany of minor injuries he has suffered this season. He has played through deep bruises to both thighs, a rib injury, a bruised hip and a pain in the neck (which is precisely how opponents see him).
But ask Ginobili if he believes he will need to tone down his act, out of good sense and concern for his body and he looks back at you as though you've asked the question in Swahili. "I would not know how to play any way than the way I play now," he says. "I can't play in a way that I am afraid to be injured."
That sort of effort and selflessness is appreciated by his teammates and by Popovich. The Spurs feed off Ginobili's all-out effort, 'the same way they feed off Ray Allen in Seattle or Kevin Garnett in Minneapolis," Popovich told reporters. "Your best players, who play with that kind of heart and that kind of will, can carry everybody else along."
Master of the Unpredictable
Another fall. This time on a drive to the basket, one of Ginobili's favorite places to stage a body-drop. It's the last play of the first quarter in Game 4, with 1.8 seconds on the clock. Jim Jackson is defending Ginobili and positions his body toward midcourt to direct Ginobili outside the lane. Ginobili takes the bait, drives outside the lane, quickly cuts back in, jumps, plants his knee in the chest of help defender Steven Hunter, manages to make the layup and gets fouled. Ginobili's hair is flopping like a dry mop. His legs are splayed like a broken wishbone. He goes to the floor yet again.
ABC analyst Hubie Brown, stunned, says of Ginobili, "You can channel him all you want, but when you channel him, you're giving him a clear lane, and even if he throws up a so-help-me-God driveway shot, he's got a chance of being fouled."
This is a big key to Ginobili's performance this season, especially in the playoffs. He generates points at the foul line. Teammate Tim Duncan admits, "When he starts to the basket, I have no idea what he's going to do."
Ginobili is mastering the unpredictable, the "so-help-me-God." Even if his prayers are not answered, there is a good chance he is going to take a hit, sprawl out and wind up with two foul shots. He got to the free throw line six times per game in the regular season but is getting there nine times per game in the playoffs.
"That makes him so difficult to prepare for," said a Western Conference scout. "You can't say, 'On this play, he likes to do this. On that play, he does that.' He doesn't have tendencies. He completely wings it out there."
Of course, winging it is not a comfortable notion for a coach, and during his first three years in the league, Ginobili's style (as well as that of French point guard Tony Parker) clashed with the structured approach Popovich prefers. But Popovich says he has grown comfortable with the razzmatazz of his backcourt, which is learning to accept the discipline Popovich preaches.
"A coming together," is how Popovich describes it.
"It has been gradual, but it has been steady," Ginobili says. "I think he saw I was doing the little things that every team needs. That was the way to gain Pop's confidence and show that you just care about winning."
That, now, is the focus of the Spurs. They are on the edge of a third championship in seven years after rolling through the Western Conference playoffs with a 12-4 record. They have a well-rested Duncan, the league's top power forward. They have Parker, who is playing the best, most consistent basketball of his career. They have a solid, experienced bench built around Horry and Barry.
"Such a smart, disciplined team," Suns Coach Mike D'Antoni says.
True, but it's also a team with Ginobili, who knows how to put smarts and discipline aside at times and play by feel, even if it feels like an ache or a bruise. That's the fun of what Ginobili is doing in this postseason -- he is trying to raise his team up higher by falling down more.