For two days, Manu Ginobili had heard all the doubts, including possibly a few from within himself. He had labored in these NBA Finals. That much was true. Long one of the game's great clutch performers and an icon here in South Texas, he had played unsteady, looking every bit of his 35 years.
This was not the Manu the San Antonio Spurs knew, and even some of them likely wondered: Was the magic gone? Were all those big-game moments Ginobili had delivered for much of the past decade just memories? Moments to be treasured and remembered, but no longer duplicated?
So, Ginobili stood there on the day before Game 5 of the Finals, surrounded by reporters, peppered by question after question, each of them implying the same. Are you done?
Not yet, it appears.
Ginobili dug deep once again, and when he was finished late Sunday, he had pushed the Spurs to a 114-104 victory over the Miami Heat, pushed them to the brink of another NBAchampionship. Ignited by his first start in more than a year, Ginobili delivered 24 points and 10 assists, lifting the Spurs to a 3-2 lead in the Finals.
Are you done?
The answer Ginobili gave on the court Sunday night rang louder than anything he had said the day before.
"I needed to feel more important, more of a threat attacking the rim," Ginobili said. "Good to see it happen."
With Ginobili finding his game, Tony Parker scoring 26 points and Danny Green making six more 3-pointers to break the record for most in the Finals – he has 25 in the series – the Spurs will have two opportunities, if needed, to dethrone the Heat in Miami.
Game 6 is Tuesday at American Airlines Arena. Game 7, if necessary, will be Thursday.
"Manu is a competitor," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "He just keeps pushing, and he does what he does. I mean, he's come to practice and worked on his shot. He's seen film. He has confidence in himself that he should just continue to compete.
"That's what he's done his whole career. And tonight he played his best game in a while."
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade each scored 25 points, but needed 22 shots apiece to get them. The Spurs made them work harder for their points than James and Wade did when they combined for 65 points in the Heat's Game 4 victory. The Spurs and Heat have alternated these Finals with victories, with only the opener producing much fourth-quarter drama. They have looked like two siblings taking turns punching each other in the face, neither mounting much of a sustained flurry. The Heat will have to change that trend: If they want to win their second consecutive title, they'll now need to win consecutive games. Two years ago, they returned to Miami trailing the Dallas Mavericks 3-2 in the Finals only to have their season end in Game 6.
"We're going to see if we're a better team than we were our first year together," James said.
The Spurs can thank Ginobili and Green for ensuring their final home game of the season ended memorably. After trailing by as many as 17 points in the first half, the Heat drew within one with 3:05 left in the third quarter. Green answered with a 3-pointer. Ginobili took over from there. He bumped Ray Allen off him, drove along the baseline and tossed in a left-handed floater while picking up the foul. He followed with a floater then found Tiago Splitter for a reverse layup. Ginobili punctuated the flurry with another driving layup.
The quarter ended as the Spurs' lead ballooned to 12. As Ginobili walked off the court to the bench, the crowd responded with a chant heard often through the years here: "Ma-nu! Ma-nu! Ma-nu!"
"I needed it," Ginobili said. "…So it felt great when I heard that. To feel that I really helped the team … it was a much-needed moment in the series."
Ginobili's night began on the court, surprisingly enough, rather than the bench. Popovich changed his lineup for the first time in the Finals by giving Ginobili a rare start.
One of the league's more versatile teams, the Spurs are accustomed to playing small or big, using a variety of personnel combinations to match up or down as they see fit. This, however, was the first time their three stars had started together all season. Ginobili hadn't started since their season-ending loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 6 of last year's Western Conference finals.
The Spurs didn't need to wait long to see if the move would give Ginobili some life. On the game's opening possession, he stepped back for a foot-on-the-line 23-foot jump shot.
"I think that first shot was huge," Parker said. "…We needed a game like that from him."
For much of these Finals, Ginobili had looked like a player unsure of himself, forcing passes and contested shots. No more. Embracing the urgency of the situation – and taking advantage of the opportunity to play alongside Tim Duncan and Parker – Ginobili found his shot and his teammates, ending the first quarter with seven points and four assists.
"I was angry, disappointed," Ginobili said. "We are playing in the NBA Finals, we were 2-2, and I felt I still wasn't really helping the team that much. And that was the frustrating part."
The Spurs took charge in the final few minutes of the opening quarter, scoring 12 unanswered points and 15 of the period's final 17. Parker ignited that burst, but he didn't lack for help. Of the Spurs' five starters, four of them scored seven points apiece in the quarter. Green was the exception, and he heated up soon enough.
Green made three 3-pointers in a 99-second flurry in the second quarter, hiking the Spurs' lead to 17 with seven minutes left in the half. He buried the third three over the outstretched arms of Ray Allen, appropriate enough, given that it was Green's 22nd 3-pointer of the Finals, tying Allen's record for most in a championship series. He broke the record with No. 23 early in the third quarter. For the series, he has made 25 of his 38 3-point attempts (65.8 percent).
"I hope he doesn't wake up," Duncan said, "and keeps playing this way."
While these Finals have been Green's coming-out party, they have also been somewhat portrayed as Ginobili's farewell ride. The popular storyline heading into Game 5 was whether Ginobili might retire after the season ends. He admits there are days – maybe even some recently – when he's thought it might be time to end his playing days. But he's also quick to say he's more likely to keep playing, that it's easier for him to imagine extending his career with at least one more season in San Antonio.
Win or lose, this week or next month, the questions will likely come again. Are you done?
If Sunday was any indication? Not yet.