San Antonio Spurs 95, CSKA Moscow 93: Where Manu and Messina cross paths again


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. 

Among the Spurs rotation pieces last season, Ginobili and Gary Neal were the only players with self-contained offenses. And neither were wholly dependable in that role. With a summer off, Ginobili looked refreshed, even if his four turnovers served as reminders of the need to diversify the second unit offense.
Picking up some of that slack has been Boris Diaw, who carried his aggressive approach from his summer with the French national team over to training camp. Diaw was 4-5 from the field in 20 minutes, scoring off a series of posts and isolations.
"He's more aggressive offensively, and that's the main thing we wanted from him," Popovich said. "And I don't think he really did that last year, he was too eager to defer to other people."
One player who's never been shy about asserting himself in his limited run is point guard Patty Mills, whose summer conditioning transformation has been one of the more intriguing storylines through the first week of training camp. 
Mills had 14 points on 6-12 shooting, including the go-ahead three-pointer in overtime. Always frenetic–if undersized–on defense, Mills has impressed in his two public showings. On the second unit, the Spurs hope to pair Ginobili and Marco Belinelli frequently, and Cory Joseph remains a solid defensive option, but Mills might offer the most impactful offensive spark among the options at backup point guard. 
But perhaps the most promising sign of the night was, in the Spurs first preseason game, Ginobili's resolve appeared renewed. The 36-year old guard was perhaps the most active player on the court over the course of his 20 minutes, jumping passing lanes, blocking shots, and crashing the boards while totaling 14 points (4-4 shooting, hitting 3-3 from the three-point line), five rebounds, and four steals. 
The explosive scoring outbursts might be too dependent on his shooting prowess these days, but Ginobili can still inject the controlled chaos that makes the Spurs that much more dangerous by flashing the all-around game developed under Messina.
"He's been very influential to my career, it's when I really developed into who I am now," Ginobili said of his time with Messina. "He really left a mark on my career. How to play on a big team."
Before he was more of a talented kid that was pretty good, but on smaller teams without high aspirations.
"On his team we had to win, and he turned me into a team player who cared about his teammates and looked forward to making everyone better."

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.