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Already missing their four-time All-NBA point guard and with their MVP candidate superstar on the bench with an ankle injury, the Spurs on Tuesday night found the hero they needed to secure an important overtime playoff win against the Houston Rockets in the oldest player on the AT&T Center court.
Thirty-nine-year-old Manu Ginobili’s block of Rockets star James Harden’s 3-point attempt with less than one second left in overtime preserved a 110-107 victory that seemed a lot like escaping from a straitjacket while handcuffed underwater.
Houston, which this season set NBA records for 3-point shots attempted and made, needed just one 3-pointer to send the game to a second overtime period after Danny Green missed one of two free throws with 15.9 seconds left. They got the ball to Harden, the league’s No. 2 regular season scorer, and he worked his way past Ginobili and tried to launch a long-range shot.
But, Ginobili trailed him and leaped as Harden lifted off the floor to shoot.
“I know where his shot releases from and he went by me,” Ginobili said. “So, I tried to bother him as much as I could and I saw I found myself very close to the ball, so I went for it. But, very risky, a risky play. But, it was also risky to let him shoot. So, I took my chances.”
It was ironic that the key defensive play would be made by the oldest player on either team, because the game was a war of attrition, with players battling injuries, fatigue and emotions. The Spurs played their third game without veteran point guard Tony Parker, out for the remainder of the playoffs with a ruptured left quadriceps tendon. The Rockets played their first without key backup big man Nene, who suffered a torn adductor muscle during Game 4.
But, Ginobili is one of the most competitive players in NBA history, so he found a way to make an impact.
“It’s hard not to be excited and full of adrenaline because it’s a Game 5 and you’re thrilled to be here,” Ginobili said. “And, you feel also lucky, not only good to be here because a lot of guys are watching it on TV. If you have the opportunity, you bring everything you have. So, today I had to play more minutes than usual because of their (small) lineup and because of Kawhi’s injury.
“It was a little hard, but I was excited to be out there.”
The injury suffered Tuesday by Kawhi Leonard was a post-game worry that won’t be relieved until, and unless, he is able to return to action.
Averaging 28.4 point per game in the playoffs, Leonard injured his left ankle with 5:41 left in the third quarter when he stepped on Harden’s foot. He closed out the third quarter and tried to play through the pain after returning to the court about four minutes into the fourth. But, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich pulled him with 34 seconds left in the fourth after it became apparent he was badly favoring the sore ankle, and he did not return when the game went into overtime.
“He didn’t want to come out, obviously,” Popovich said. “We let him play a little while just to see what he was going to be like, but it was obvious that he couldn’t go.”
Leonard said he was frustrated by his forced absence, praised his teammates for the effort required to win without him, then declared he would be ready for Game 6.
“Yeah, I’m going to be able to play,” he said.
That was the news Tuesday’s heroes wanted to hear, and the victory they secured means the Spurs will have a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven NBA Western Conference Semifinals series when they head to Houston on Thursday, where they will have a chance to close out the series in Game 6 at the Toyota Center.
Patty Mills, inserted in the starting lineup after a two-game experiment with rookie Dejounte Murray as Parker’s replacement, made 5-of-12 3-point shots, scored 20 points, and took a small share of the defensive load on Harden.
Yet, it was Ginobili who simply refused to let the Spurs lose. The oldest player still alive in the NBA playoffs turned the clock back to his days as an NBA All-Star, logging more than 31 minutes, scoring 12 points, grabbing 7 rebounds, handing out 5 assists and making the key defensive play of the game.
“Manu is one of the all-time great competitors and winners, obviously, and he helped us do it again tonight,” Popovich said.
Spurs guard Danny Green was the offensive hero in overtime, scoring seven of the Spurs’ 9 points, all in the final minute. After missing 18-of-24 fourth quarter shots – 13 straight over one 5-minute stretch – the Spurs were scoreless in the first three-and-a-half minutes of overtime, all without Leonard.
Winning without their crunch time “go-to” player, Green said, took perseverance and belief from all five players who competed in the extra session: Green, Ginobili, Jonathan Simmons, LaMarcus Aldridge and Patty Mills.
“It came from all of us,” Green said. “We just kind of trusted our offense and moving the ball and finding each other. Drive, kick, get some uncontested ones. We knew shots weren’t falling but we continued to find the open guy uncontested. Eventually, one of them would fall, so, luckily, it did for us and, luckily for us, (the Rockets) missed a couple. So, it was a good one on that end for us.”
The outcome came down to luck and one Ginobili block.
” It was like flipping a coin,” Ginobili said. “It could have gone for any of the two, and it fell on our side, so now we are going to Houston, 3-2. We’re in a good situation. We’ve just got to keep competing.”
It remains to be seen if the ever-cautious Popovich will allow Leonard to play Thursday on his sore ankle, regardless of his star’s assertion that he will. Sitting him would allow five days for his ankle to heal more fully before a game the Spurs will play on Sunday – either Game 7 of the series against the Rockets, or Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors.
Game 6, to be broadcast on ESPN, will tip off at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 11 at Toyota Center in Houston.