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There was a time when Manu Ginobili getting the ball for a corner 3-point shot with the Spurs trailing by two points in the final seconds of a game was enough to send a shiver down the spine of every opposing coach.
Milwaukee Bucks coach Jason Kidd saw Ginobili’s clutch shot-making during the ten seasons of his great NBA playing career overlap Ginobili’s, as well as his three seasons as a head coach. So, when Kawhi Leonard fired a perfect pass to Ginobili, utterly alone in the corner right in front of his team’s bench on Tuesday night, the game on the line, Kidd’s shoulders sagged and he looked down to the floor, acutely aware one of the league’s great clutch shooters could still drill a game winner, even on a night his shot had been shaky.
This time, Ginobili’s shot didn’t even make it to the rim. His shot clanged off the side of the backboard, allowing the Bucks to escape the AT&T Center on Tuesday night with a 109-107 victory that snapped a nine-game Spurs winning streak on their home court.
Kidd put both hands on his head, a show of relief, when Ginobili’s shot bounced harmlessly away.
Filling in for Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, who played only nine minutes because of an undisclosed illness, journeyman forward Michael Beasley came off the bench to make 11-of-18 shots and lead the Bucks to the victory with 28 points. His pass to point guard Malcolm Brogdon with 1:08 remaining set up an open 3-pointer for the rookie from University of Virginia that turned out to be the game-winner for Milwaukee.
NBA games never are truly won or lost on last-second shots, and Tuesday’s wasn’t, either. Gregg Popovich knew his team’s inability to stop the Bucks in the second half is what turned the game into a make-or-miss game in the final minute.
“We didn’t want the game to come down to who makes a shot at the end of the game,” the Spurs coach said. “They made a (3-pointer) and we didn’t.
“The problem was we didn’t guard very well. Obviously, Beasley was great. We never stopped him. But, in general, our defense was not up to par. They took advantage of it, and they did a great job offensively. We talked the whole second half: ‘If we keep letting them score like that we’re going to have a big problem because it’s going to come down to who makes a shot at the end and that can always go either way.’”
Popovich shouldn’t have had to remind his players of this fact of basketball life, because they had emerged with a 97-96 win at Milwaukee’s Bradley Center on Dec. 5 when LaMarcus Aldridge made a late shot – Antetokounmpo was called for a goal tend – and Bucks forward Mirza Teletovic missed a wide-open 3-pointer at the buzzer – Popovich had been the one who departed the court shaking his head in relief after that one.
This time, the Spurs were done in by their inattention to defense in the final three of minutes of the first half and the final five minutes of the fourth.
A 13-point lead dwindled to six in the final 2:43 of the half, the Bucks getting three points on an off play that closed the period.
The Spurs had not been whistled for a single foul in the period, which gave them a foil to give, with impunity, unless committed in the act of shooting. Leonard, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, reached in to give the intentional foul as Brogdon neared mid-court, and when Brogdon wheeled and tossed the ball in the direction of the basket, referee Brian Forte ruled the foul was committed in the act of a 3-point shot.
Brogdon, an 89% free thrower, made all three shots.
“Usually, they know we’re going to foul when we have a foul to give,” Leonard said. “Things happen.”
Slicing seven points from the Spurs lead sent the Bucks to the locker room with a sense they could steal a rare win in San Antonio.
“We were only down six, so we felt we were in a good seat,” Kidd said of the late rally in the second period.
So, the game came down to the final possession, when Ginobili’s 3-pointer could have given the Spurs their second one-point win over Milwaukee this season.
The 39-year-old Spurs guard who has made more game-winning plays – shots, blocks, key passes, steals – than most players in franchise history, owned up to his last-second brick.
“I was wide open,” Ginobili. “Terrible shot
“We played poorly and the game ended up going for the one that made the big shot. We missed two in the last 14 seconds that weren’t very good and they made one. If you don’t play well things can go wrong against any team. So, it was actually pretty similar to what happened over there: They had the shot to win it from the corner and they missed.
“Sometimes, it goes your way; sometimes it goes the other way.”
And, sometimes a coach’s shoulders sag before a moment of elation.