Starting the Argentine in Game 5 was unexpected, but a tactical masterstroke by Gregg Popovich, writes Steve Dilbeck.
NBA finals: San Antonio Spurs coach's faith in Manu Ginobili rewarded
NBA coaches love to say this: the play-offs are about adjustments.
They love to say it, but not all of them live it. A precious few actually excel at it.
Which may be why San Antonio Spurs have taken a 3-2 lead over the defending champion Miami Heat in the NBA finals.
The Spurs are led by Gregg Popovich, who is widely recognised as the game's most astute coach. He already has won four NBA titles with a small-market club that really has little business hanging championship banners.
The Heat are coached by Erik Spoelstra, who certainly is not a bad coach and did lead Miami to the title last year. Still, few confuse him with Popovich when it comes to strategy and tactics.
Anyone harbouring doubt had only to see Game 5 in San Antonio on Sunday. Miami had dominated the previous game, wiping the Spurs out by 16 points to take back the home-court advantage. It was time for the Spurs to make an adjustment, and Popovich did. He made one that most would have thought made little sense.
He inserted into the starting line-up the veteran Argentine guard Manu Ginobili, who had looked lost for weeks. In the first four games of the finals, he averaged 7.5 points per game and seemed out of control and lacking in confidence.
On Saturday, Popovich told Ginobili he would start Game 5 the next day - his first start of the season, regular season or play-offs.
The Spurs had struggled with the Heat's small line-up. Popovich wanted Ginobili free to drive and be aggressive against Miami's smaller guards.
"It's the way they play defence on the pick-and-roll," Ginobili said. "They're aggressive on the ball-handler."
Facing fewer traps and defensive pressure while in the game with his long-time teammate Tony Parker, Ginobili was able to penetrate to the basket, creating chaos in the Miami defence.
"Every time he comes off the bench, the whole focus of the defence is on him because I'm out and Timmy [Duncan] is out," Parker said. "So when he's playing with us and they're still going to trap me and still going to pay attention to Timmy, Manu is going to get opportunities."
In Game 5, playing mostly with Parker, Ginobili scored 24 points and had 10 assists. As a team, the Spurs shot 60 per cent, a number which says "lots of easy shots".
For all his hard-line, no-nonsense talk, Popovich is hardly afraid to try something different, to make that crucial adjustment. The result? Parker and Ginobili took turns going to the rim for scoop shots and layups.
Meanwhile, the shooting guard Danny Green continued to light it up beyond the three-point line. Green attempted 10 three-pointers and made six. In five games, he has already set a finals record with 25 in five games. "I can't believe he's still open," Parker said. Neither can most, but Spoelstra has failed to make his adjustment. Green keeps popping open and shooting mostly uncontested.
Popovich is winning the game of adjustments. If he can work his magic once more this week, San Antonio will be champions again.
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