Though his legs are relatively short for his frame, Ginobili covers an inordinate amount of ground, which has led to much wailing that he travels more than a rail-riding hobo. "I do not travel," says Ginobili. "I take two steps always." Bowen, who played for parts of two seasons in France, agrees. "We're taught over here to take these little pitty-pat two steps, but in Europe they take two long steps," he says. One NBA referee, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that while officials do get complaints about Ginobili's alleged traveling, "it's not even an issue."
Along with long steps, Ginobili takes side steps, so his journey to the hoop is seldom a straight--or predictable--route. He charges into the lane like a tailback into the line, feinting toward one hole then darting into another. "Manu's learned to take his steps wide and not in the same direct path," says Bowen. "He uses his steps to get around people, not just by them."
Ginobili has become such an effective one-on-one player that an interesting subplot has developed on the Spurs: When the clock is running down late in a close game, will Popovich put the ball in the hands of his point guard, Parker, or Ginobili? Parker can get to the rim or shoot his high-arcing "teardrop" from inside 10 feet. But Ginobili is just as lethal, and lately Popovich has trusted him to go Manu a mano in tight games. Ginobili slashes to the hoop, has a pull-up jumper and finds teammates when he's doubled. Before Game 3 of the Western finals, the Suns were working on their defensive rotations in practice when someone asked, "What do we do if Ginobili gets to this spot?"
Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni's answer: "Pray that he misses."
Ginobili also has a knack for absorbing contact and still getting off a good shot, which is fortunate for him, since his giant-steps journeys to the basket frequently--make that almost always--bring him into contact with a defender or two, not to mention the court. In San Antonio's 102-92 Game 3 win, Phoenix center Amar� Stoudemire almost pulled Ginobili's left arm out of its socket in an effort to stop a reckless excursion to the hoop; later, an undeterred Manu barreled toward the basket, knees up, challenging Stoudemire, a shot blocker, to knock him down. Stoudemire complied. Whistle, basket good, three-point play.
"I don't think about drawing the contact on purpose," Ginobili says. "I just want to get to the line." Which he does. Among the Spurs, only Duncan (9.4 free throws per game) has been to the line in the postseason more than Ginobili (9.0).
Though he's been called a flopper, Ginobili usually springs to his feet without comment after being flattened. He may be emotional--there has never been a dancing-on-the-court celebration like the one Ginobili and his Argentine teammates put on after they won the gold medal last August in Athens--but he is not confrontational. To opponents, no doubt, he can be an irritant. During San Antonio's first-round five-game triumph over the Nuggets, Denver coach George Karl summed up Ginobili's style as "put your head down and run into people."
Ginobili's unconventionality is evident in his gambling defense, too, and it's an ongoing debate whether his style works for the Spurs more than it works against them. "Manu could be a great defensive player," says Barry with a smile, "he just chooses not to be." At times Ginobili seems to spring from some trapdoor to make a steal (as he did to a surprised Stoudemire several times) or fly out of nowhere to knock away a ball from behind (as he also did to Steve Nash in the Western finals). When Popovich demands that Ginobili restrict his roaming and play straight up, Ginobili is blessed with the speed, athleticism and determination to stay in front of his man. Ginobili and Bowen often trade off guarding the opponent's top perimeter threat; they make an exasperating tandem, as Detroit's Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince will no doubt discover.
The defending champion Pistons will have a number of defensive priorities, the first two being to surround Duncan on the inside and keep Parker from penetrating the lane. They will also make sure to locate Horry, who loves to float around the arc and insert a three-point dagger at a key moment. But the book on how to play Ginobili--the Manu-al, as it were--is thin. The Nuggets, the SuperSonics and the Suns tried roughly the same things in the first three rounds of the playoffs: crowd him because he's a great three-point shooter; make him go right, because he doesn't dribble well with his off hand; and push him toward help, because when he leaves his feet, he's prone to giving the ball up.
The toughest thing about planning for Ginobili, however, is that you don't know exactly what to plan for. "Manu has changed me as a coach," says Popovich. "He's made me believe that you can do the strange and unpredictable and be out of position once in a while yet still make something positive happen. Whatever he does, he does only to win, because he has the exact competitive nature of a Michael Jordan."