Ginobili knows that no role with Popovich lasts forever
Mike Finger - Gregg Popovich made another vow Tuesday evening, but he might have been the only one who believed it. He told Manu Ginobili he’s a starter again, this time “in perpetuity,” and later listed off all the reasons why the NBA’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year will never be a sixth man again.
Then Popovich watched his new starting unit in action, and followed that by saying a few other things Ginobili has heard before. He called his team “soft” and “intimidated,” words that traditionally have preceded other spurts of lineup tinkering.
Everyone in the Spurs’ locker room understood what this meant. Diamonds are forever, but perpetuity might not even last until Thursday.
Even before Rasheed Wallace rediscovered his wild oats and the Pistons ripped through the supposedly healed Spurs at the AT&T Center, Popovich admitted his comments about Ginobili’s future were a tough sell. Over the past six years he’s declared Ginobili a starter about as often as “Pacman” Jones has been declared a new man, and every time, people winked the same way when they heard it.
Ginobili is as skeptical as anyone. Informed Tuesday that his days of coming off the Spurs’ bench were over for good, he reacted like his coach had just promised him a visit from the tooth fairy.
“When I told him, he laughed at me,” Popovich said. “He kind of raised his eyebrows and said, ‘Sure, Pop.’.”
But won’t this be different this time? Hasn’t Ginobili earned a permanent promotion? Doesn’t the presence of Roger Mason Jr. and George Hill mean that the Spurs don’t need Ginobili’s scoring punch off the bench anymore?
Popovich said he thinks so. He likes the idea of starting the game with a Ginobili-Tony Parker-Tim Duncan group that’s been through big moments together — a group with what Popovich calls “an edge, some personality and some bravado” — and doesn’t foresee that changing.
Ginobili does, though. In his mind, he’s the townsperson and Popovich is the boy who cried wolf, only in this story, the townsperson never gets tired of riding to the rescue.
“I’m so used to being a backup,” Ginobili said, “sometimes I prefer it.”
He speaks as though he fully expects to be sent back to the bench again, because he knows the Spurs eventually will need another jolt, and he suspects Popovich will look for it in the same place he has before. Ginobili heard Popovich talk about perpetuity, and although he doesn’t doubt his coach’s sincerity, he’s learned not to be surprised by a change of heart.
“Every time I started (before), it was forever,” Ginobili said.
As has become his custom, he said he’ll do whatever the team needs him to do, and that familiar refrain came from the other end of the Spurs’ locker room Tuesday night, too. Mason, the man who had perhaps as big a role as anyone in the Spurs’ 7-1 run last month, sounded just like Ginobili when he talked about his role switch. Mason talked about how he’d gotten used to being a starter, how he enjoyed it and how coming off the bench would require a few adjustments, and then — just as Ginobili always has done — he looked at the bright side.
“A lot of times you can be more of a difference-maker,” Mason said.
That’s exactly what Popovich had in mind when he decided to start Ginobili again. He said he wouldn’t have made the move unless he was sure he had someone on the bench to “bring us something Manu used to,” and added that “Roger has shown he can do that, for sure.”
Even in what was perhaps the most discouraging loss of the season, Mason showed a glimpse of that. With the Spurs floundering midway through the fourth quarter and the Pistons on an 11-1 run, Parker nearly traveled and tossed the ball to Mason, who was forced to heave a 3-point-attempt with the shot clock running down.
The ball swished, just like it used to do when it came out of Ginobili’s hands.
But that was Mason’s only highlight of the night, and when it ended, people began to wonder. They wondered about roles and vows and perpetuity, and how long it would be before they all changed. And as for the man who started it all?