He’s the Manu for league-leading Spurs

It was entirely appropriate that Manu Ginobili hit the winning shot at the buzzer Wednesday as the Spurs beat the Bucks 92-90, since he’s unquestionably the MVP of San Antonio’s offense.

Not Tim Duncan, whose skills are diminishing but who still retains a significant presence. Not Tony Parker, whose messy divorce proceedings have clearly sapped his on-court intensity. Not Richard Jefferson, who has finally learned how to play a precision half-court after being weaned on the run by Jason Kidd during his early seasons with the Nets.

When Manu is at the top of his game, so are the Spurs. And when the Spurs’ game gets too dull it’s time for Manu to demonstrate just how sharply honed his talents are in the clutch. Which is exactly what happened against the Bucks after the Spurs went into cruise control after building a double-digit lead in the third quarter. Coupled with San Antonio’s subsequent desultory ball movement and some inspired play off the bench by Milwaukee’s Drew Gooden, the Bucks rallied to put the outcome in doubt — leaving Ginobili to almost single-handedly pull the game out of the fire.

OFFENSE

Ginobili’s line was impressive: 9-for-13 (including 2-3 from beyond the arc), four assists, one steal, and a game-high 26 points — all accumulated in 30 minutes of daylight. He did have four turnovers, mostly on too-long or too-short passes executed on the move. But five other passes created open shots (including a layup) that were missed by various teammates. And Manu even set four sturdy and useful cross-screens in the paint.

Let us count the ways in which Ginobili scored:

Two buckets on breaks. Two layups as he maneuvered through the entire Milwakuee defense out of 1-4 alignments with the clock about to expire at the end of both the first and the third quarters. A running lefty hook. A trey on the receving end of a kickout pass. A layup resulting from his moving without the ball in a half-court set.

And then came his heroics in the closing minutes of the game: A huge 3-ball followed (after a pair of complicated layups were blocked by Andrew Bogut) by his game-winning deuce. This dramatic bucket resulted from still another iso situation in which Ginobili pulled left and turned a hard defensive bump by Luc Mbah A Moute into a step-back jumper that was in the air as the buzzer sounded.

DEFENSE

Ginobili was even a significant factor on defense. True, he was never seriously challenged by Mbah A Moute or Chris Douglas-Roberts. The only points tallied against him were registered by Douglas-Roberts when Manu made too sincere a commitment to denying an entry pass in to Bogut in the low-post and couldn’t recover in time to prevent D-R from nailing an uncontested trey. Plus another 3-ball was yielded when he was forced to switch onto the speedy Brandon Jennings.

Otherwise, Ginobili played a quick-handed, ball-hawking brand of defense. Deflecting passes, denying passes, brush-bumping cutters, and even coming from the weak side to swipe the ball out of Bogut’s hands. Indeed, Ginobili may not be a forceful one-on-one defender but he does have terrific help-range.

In so many ways, this game showed why the Spurs have the league’s best record at 21-3. These days more than ever, whenever a game is on the line and the Spurs need a savior, it’s Manu Ginobili to the rescue.

RANTS

It’s no secret that I delight in making lists. So here’s an alphabetized enumeration of the worst man-to-man defenders in the league. This category should not be confused with players who excel in team defense — like Tim Duncan and Dwight Howard — but who are not exceptional man-defenders.

Since the list is so long, the question arises as to how these guys can survive in the NBA. The answer varies, but a constant is that they each do something else extremely well so that they can be hidden on defense yet be a positive force.

Gilbert Arenas – A terrific scorer and very streaky very-long-range shooter.

Carlos Arroyo – Hits open mid-range jumpers and makes good decisions with the ball.

Andrea Bargnani – Stretches defenses by forcing his defender to guard him beyond the 3-point line.

Michael Beasley – Will hopefully grow up and become a fail-safe scorer.

Matt Bonner – See Bargnani.

Carlos Boozer – Rebounds and scores lots of points against relatively weak opponents.

Eddy Curry – Makes his team’s doctors and trainers earn their salaries.

Mike Dunleavy – Scampers and scores.

Monta Ellis – Will usually outscore whoever’s guarding him.

Channing Frye – See Bargnani above.

Danny Granger – Is a go-to scorer.

Aaron Gray – Takes up lots of space and works comparatively cheaply.

Tyler Hansbrough – Hustles, makes few mistakes.

Spencer Hawes – Yet to be discerned.

James Jones – Hits open 3-point shots.

Jason Kapono and Kyle Korver – Hit uncontested jumpers.

David Lee – Rebounds and plays hard.

Kevin Martin – Runs and scores.

Brad Miller – Hits open mid-range jumpers, and passes.

Mike Miller – See above, but with much better range.

Steve Nash – Creates good shots for himself and his teammates.

Vlad Radmanovic – Presumably knocks down treys.

Nate Robinson – Takes bad shots and makes some of them.

Luis Scola – Scores sufficiently to make up for the absence of Yao Ming.

Peja Stojakovic – See V-Rad above.

Luke Walton – Passes.

Yi Jianlian – Hits jumpers off screens and turn-around jays.

Notice that, except for Walton, none of these guys has ever played for a championship-winning team. And, at most, Walton was a bit player.

RAVES

Here’s the much shorter list of man-to-man stoppers.

Arron Afflalo, Tony Allen, Trevor Ariza, Ron Artest, Renaldo Balkman, Matt Barnes, Shane Battier, Raja Bell, Keith Bogans, Kwame Brown, Jason Collins, Udonis Haslem, Chuck Hayes, Royal Ivey, Jared Jeffries, Anthony Parker, Mickael Pietrus, Thabo Sefolosha, Brian Skinner, Ben Wallace, and Delonte West.

Notice that although only 21 names appear on this list (as opposed to 27 on the no-dee list), five of these defensive specialists have won gold rings.

VOX POPULI

Q. Among several of my fellow Texans, there’s always a controversy concerning the respective merits of Tim Duncan and Hakeem Olajuwon, by far the two best big men ever to play for a pro team in the Lone Star State. What’s your opinion? Thanks. – Mike Smith, Baytown, TX

A. Comparing these two is an exercise in comparing power vs. speed.

Duncan is much stronger and has a more varied low-post attack. He’s also a better passer and has slightly better range on his jump shot. TD’s rebounding numbers are slightly higher (11.6 to 11.1) mostly because he spends more time in the pivot.

On the other hand, Olajuwon was quicker in every aspect of the game. He could be involved in Houston’s running game either as a trailer or a wing-runner. He also had better defensive range and was a four-space rebounder compared to Duncan’s 3-space range. Olajuwon’s points-per-game total was slightly higher (21.8 to 21.1) simply because the Rockets mostly played a free-wheeling, iso-oriented game whereas the Spurs gameplan is more disciplined and deliberate. That’s why Duncan averages 15.8 shots per game as opposed to Olajuwon’s 16.9.

Hakeem, of course, was the superior free-throw shooter—71.2 percent to Tim’s 68.7 percent.

As far as their respective physical statures are concerned, both are 7-0, with TD five pounds heavier at 260. Yet because Olajuwon played most of his 35.7 minutes per game at center he was subjected to more physical confrontations than Duncan. That’s because at least half of TD’s 36.4 minutes/game were at the power forward slot. That’s also why Olajuwon’s peak seasons only numbered 12 while Duncan is still going strong in his 14th campaign.

Overall, though, I’d have to go with Olajuwon because of his stupendous quickness, his versatility at both ends of the court, and his relative reliability from the stripe in clutch situations.