AT&T CENTER — Overseeing the formative years of Manu Ginobili's professional career in Italy, CSKA Moscow coach Ettore Messina recalls the Spurs sixth man as being one of his most energetic, passionate players during their time together with Virtus Bologna.
And if there were any questions about the Spurs' sixth man's resolve after briefly contemplating retirement following a volatile performance in the NBA Finals, his former coach didn't see it.
"When you see Manu Ginobili in the preseason diving for balls," Messina said, "that's a good lesson in terms of understanding what the real NBA is."
The real NBA isn't quite back yet, as preseason games can often devolve into unorganized messes while coaches shuffle through 20-man rosters and odd rotations. Never was that more apparent than when Spurs coach Gregg Popovich fielded a lineup of Patty Mills, Nando De Colo, Sam Young, Jeff Ayres, and Aron Baynes that struggled to generate a decent look in a 15-0 drought to start the fourth quarter.
De Colo would eventually break that drought with a fast break layup, and Baynes would tip in an errant Mills three-pointer to send the game into overtime where a successful Mills three would put the Spurs up for the 95-93 victory; but the preseason is more about process than end results, as was apparent by the sour look on Popovich's face when Baynes sent the game into overtime.
Even for a team as steeped in corporate knowledge as the San Antonio Spurs, the preseason still offers a number of teaching moments. If CSKA Moscow lacked the top-end talend of the NBA's best, the game still provided valuable insight due in part to Popovich's deep admiration for Messina.
"I'm going to watch the film closely because I've always been impressed with coach Messina's teams," Popovich said after the Spurs 95-93 OT win. "They penetrate and pitch better than we do. We try to be a team that does that really well, and we've adopted some European style in what we do, but he really does a great job with them. I want to look at that and see what we can do to get even be better at it."
Though the Spurs starters quickly settled into familiar roles, anchored by Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, there's still the matter of incorporating Kawhi Leonard's expanding skill set into the mix without disrupting the continuity of the system.
Leonard had some promising looks on quick hits in the post, even if the ball didn't always drop. And the Spurs starters, when they finally flexed their muscle in the third quarter, proved too talented for Messina's system to overcome.
The only question marks facing the Spurs heading into the season revolve around health, which ultimately depends on the quality of depth they have to ease the burdens on Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili. When Popovich watches film of this game, it will undoubtedly be to find how Messina's offense found slight advantages despite lacking a top shelf focal point at the NBA level.
Over a decade after helping Messina reach every European basketball plateau, Ginobili isn't the same player he was back then. But he remains, as always, the same competitor. And in the month ahead there remains plenty of time to reconcile the two in a manner that helps the Spurs reach their peak again.