SAN ANTONIO — Forget Tim Duncan or Tony Parker. There’s no question who is the people’s choice in San Antonio.
It’s Manu Ginobili. Take a walk around town and it seems like Ginobili’s replica Spurs No. 20 jerseys outnumber Duncan’s No. 21 and Parker’s No. 9 combined.
“He’s obviously very popular,’’ San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said of the Argentinian swingman. “He’s helped us have a lot of success over the years. One can imagine since he speaks the language (Spanish) of a lot of the people who live here, it endears him even more.’’
But for one of the few times in his 11 years with the Spurs, Ginobili, 35, was hearing criticism. He averaged a meager 7.5 points and was shooting 34.8 percent in the first four games of the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, and some of the talk said he really might be reaching the end of his career.
So what did Popovich do? He started Ginobili on Sunday night in Game 5 for the first time this season. The plan was to match up with swingman Mike Miller, who entered Miami’s small lineup in Game 4, but also to try to jump-start Ginobili.
It certainly worked. Ginobili had 24 points and 10 assists, and the Spurs won 114-104 at the AT&T Center to take a 3-2 series lead.
“Yeah, sometimes,’’ Ginobili said when asked if he felt he had been letting down his legions of fans. “You know, we are all very popular. In Argentina, there’s a lot of people following you and your family and friends and everybody, they think great of you and they expect great things. And sometimes that affects you a little bit.’’
At least for one night, the great Ginobili was back. And it didn’t take long. Ginobili stirred the crowd into a frenzy by opening the game by sinking a long jumper. The crowd soon was chanting, “Manu, Manu. Manu.’’
Ginobili had plenty of help. The Spurs got a game-high 26 points from Parker, Danny Green also scored 24 while continuing his hot shooting, and Duncan had 17 points and 12 rebounds. But the emotional lift was provided by Ginobili, who actually talked Saturday about possibly retiring following the season.
“He did seem dejected,’’ Duncan said. “He’s a competitor, an extreme competitor … He wanted to play well really badly … I knew he would play well.’’
The Heat, though, didn’t play well, despite all their talk of urgency entering Sunday’s game. They vowed to win a second straight game for the first time since claiming Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against Indiana. But again it didn’t happen.
The Heat shot just 43 percent to 60 percent for the Spurs. They now head home having to win Game 6 Tuesday and a possible Game 7 Thursday at AmericanAirlines Arena to claim a second straight championship.
“I have to come up big, for sure, in Game 6,’’ said disappointed Heat forward LeBron James, who had 25 points on 8-of-22 shooting while sidekick Dwyane Wade had 25 on 10-of-22 shooting. “But I believe we all have to play at a high level in order to keep the series going.’’
The Heat at least can take solace in that three times in eight chances teams have won the final two games at home to take the Finals 4-3 since the 2-3-2 format began in 1985. The comeback kings were the Los Angeles Lakers over Detroit in 1988, Houston topping New York in 1994 and the Lakers doing it to Boston in 2010.
But how many teams have come back to win from down 3-2 and facing two games on the road?
None. That’s why Sunday was a must-win for the Spurs.
“Every game is pressure,’’ said Green, whose Spurs took a 17-point second-quarter lead, watched Miami cut it to one in the third and then went up by as many as 20 in the fourth. “It’s the Finals.’’
Green certainly hasn’t wilted on the big stage. He shot 6 of 10 from 3-point range to make him a staggering 25 of 38 (65.8 percent) in the series.
Green broke the record of 22 set by Ray Allen of Boston in 2008 for most 3-pointers in a Finals series. The only consolation Sunday for Allen, now with Miami, is he got his game going and had 21 points on 4-of-4 shooting from 3-point range.
But the Heat had fewer weapons Sunday than the Spurs. A big difference was the reemergence of Ginobili, who shot 8 of 14 and had just six fewer points than in the first four games behind.
“Obviously, he was very good,’’ said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who said he wasn’t surprised Ginobili got the start.
Spoelstra replaced power forward Udonis Haslem with Miller in the starting lineup in Game 4, and the small lineup helped the Heat win 109-93. It was Popovich’s move Sunday, and he gave Ginboli his first start since June 6, 2012 — Game 6 of the West finals against Oklahoma City.
Popovich said the move to replace big man Tiago Splitter was both to match up better with Miller and to get Ginobili going. The legendary coach deadpanned that it worked “fairly well.’’
“I found out (Saturday) before practice,’’ Ginobili said. “(Popovich) came to me and told me I was going to start because of the way they had been starting … I attacked better … I was having a tough time scoring and I needed to feel like the game was coming to me … So good that it happened in an important situation.’’
Ginobili had his highest-scoring output all season. He had as many as 24 points and 10 assists in a game for the first time since March 23, 2008.
“We knew he was going to try to come out and have the game of his life,’’ Miami guard Mario Chalmers said.
Perhaps it wasn’t that good. Ginobili has won three NBA title rings, an Olympic gold medal and has an NBA career-playoff high of 39 points.
Still, it was quite a night.
“I was angry, disappointed,’’ Ginobili said of how he felt entering Sunday. “We are playing in the NBA Finals, we were 2-2 and I felt I still wasn’t really helping the team that much. And that was the frustrating part.’’
By the end of the night, Ginobili went to a back hallway to greet his 3-year-old twin boys, Dante and Nicola, on Father’s Day. They were jumping up and down with excitement when he arrived.
Of course, plenty of people in San Antonio jump up and down at the sight of Ginobili. He might have hit a rough patch, but things figure to be back to normal after Sunday.