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On Tuesday night, 209 days after their season-opening victory over the Golden State Warriors, the Spurs‘ season ended when the Warriors scored a 129-115 win at AT&T Center in Game 4 of the NBA Western Conference Finals. Golden State completed a four-game sweep and remained unbeaten in the playoffs, 12-0, as they move on to their third straight NBA Finals.
It was a disappointing finish for a Spurs team that won 61 regular-season games, regret magnified by the nagging frustration of not knowing what might have happened had not Most Valuable Player candidate Kawhi Leonard been injured in the third quarter of Game 1, a sprained left ankle forcing him to miss the final three games.
The absence of Leonard, starting point guard Tony Parker (ruptured left quadriceps tendon), and, for Game 4, center David Lee (left knee strain) made a victory in Game 4 nearly impossible against one of the best teams in NBA history. Golden State’s Steph Curry (39 points) and Kevin Durant (26 points) made sure there would be no Spurs miracle.
And yet, Monday’s Game 4 became a celebration for Spurs fans, who understood they may have been witnessing the final game of Manu Ginobili’s amazing career.
For 15 Spurs seasons, the ultra-competitive Ginobili has been what Coach Gregg Popovich called “one of those guys who becomes the heart and soul of your team just because of his exemplary competitiveness.”
Recognizing the moment, Popovich put Ginobili in his starting lineup for the first time since March 24, 2014. The starting assignment allowed the Spurs coach to play Ginobili for 32 minutes, and the 39-year-old Argentine guard responded with 15 points and 7 assists.
And, with the game out of reach late in the fourth quarter, fans began chanting his name – “Manu … Manu” – and Popovich used the moment to sub him out of the game for the last time, the crowd rising to its feet in a long, heartfelt goodbye.
It may have been adios only for this season, but Popovich understood there was a chance it was for forever.
“You think it may or may not be his last game that he ever plays in,” Popovich said, “and I did not want to miss the opportunity to honor him in front of our home fans for his selflessness over the years.
“I mean, this is a Hall of Fame player who allowed me to bring him off the bench for – I can’t even remember now – the last decade, or something, because it would make us a better team overall. He deserved to have that night of respect so that he really feels that we appreciate everything he’s done over the years.”
Ginobili won’t decide about his future with the Spurs until he has had a few weeks to digest what transpired in his 15th season in silver and black, including how he feels physically. He will consult with his wife, Marianela, weigh the pros and cons of preparing himself for the rigors of another 82-game grind, and make what he said will be a happy choice between retiring and continuing his career.
“Whatever I decide to do, I’ll be a happy camper,” Ginobili said. “I have to choose between two truly wonderful options. One is to keep playing in this league at this age, enjoying every day, playing the sport I still love. The other one is to stay at home, be a Dad, travel more, enjoy my whole family. I have a wonderful family and spend time with them.
“So there is no way I can be sad, because whatever I decide, it’s going to be great.”
Ginobili was not sad about being swept, either, because he understood the injury misfortune that hit the Spurs made the series against the Warriors “like going to war with a bat.
“You can swing, swing, swing, maybe you’ll hit somebody, but it isn’t fair. They were so much better than us, so much stronger.”
Popovich played much of the second half of Monday’s game with young players who figure in his future plans, and third-year forward Kyle Anderson scored 20 points, the best playoff production of his short career. Rookies Dejounte Murray and Bryn Forbes combined for 17 points; second-year forward Jonathan Simmons scored 13.
“That’s a good group of kids,” Popovich said. “We have seven new players this year, and, for our part, I think they had a great season. When you get seven new guys and you play for the first time without [Tim Duncan’s] leadership, to win 61 games and play well through the first round, the second round, and the beginning of the Conference Finals, I think they did a fine job for themselves. The young kids had a big part of that throughout the year and in the playoffs, so I think their future is bright.”
Still, it is Ginobili’s future that Spurs fans will be tracking over the next few months.
So, too, will his teammates.
“At this point, I’m not going to put that pressure on him,” said Danny Green, who has played seven seasons with Ginobili. “Whatever it is, I’m sure he has his mind made up or he’s been thinking about it for some time. We’ll see what his decision is and we’ll respect it, but it would be nice to play with him for another year.”
As Ginobili exited the floor at the conclusion of Monday’s game, Spurs fans changed their chant to “one more year.”
Ginobili waved, blew them a kiss, and disappeared into the vomitory leading to the Spurs locker room.
We won’t know for a few more weeks if it was a goodbye kiss.