Gameday: Vince Vs. Manu As Series Key

They're on the wrong side of 35. They're trying to get by on guile as much as athleticism. They're trying to push their respective teams beyond Round 1. And as we approach tonight's Game 5 in San Antonio, the guy who does it better - Vince Carter or Manu Ginobili - might be the guy deciding the series outcome of Mavs-vs.-Spurs.

They're both on the wrong side of 35 years old. They're both likely Hall-of-Famers just trying to add enough to their resume to remove all doubt. They've both been considered among the most exciting basketball players in the world in their prime, but noticeable aspects of that natural talent had already begun to slip away from them a few years ago.

Yet, Vince Carter and Manu Ginobili may end up deciding the first-round matchup between the Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks

There are so many other factors to be sure:

* Dirk's "Air Space'' and how to locate it so he gets beyond 16 points per.

* The suspension absence of DeJuan Blair for mule-kicking.

* The balky ankle of Tony Parker - and the chance he'll miss the 39th game of his career with it.

* The identity of the officiating crew - and the hope nobody named "Crawford'' is anywhere near the gym.

* The latest in The Sterling Saga as an inspiration, a distraction or nothing at all.

But there's been a Vince-and-Manu correlation to wins and losses in this series. And we think will be again.

Ginobili was on fire from behind the arc the first two games (including a 27 point game 2) of the series going 8-12 from three-point range, until falling flat in game three missing all four of three pointers and shooting 4-14 from the field.

Carter has been unable to match Ginobili's scoring output and has been somewhat patient with his shot selection. He only totaled 29 points in the first three games, but we think it's safe to say that three of those points just so happened to be almost as crucial as any three points in a first round could possibly be.

Carter and Ginobili are more than just sixth men for their teams. They are more than reliable veterans, too. They are also more than just the sum of those two characteristics. They are both key cogs in the identity of their teams.

Ginobili has long filled a very successful (infuriatingly so for the other 29 teams) role on the Spurs. He is the unpredictable creator, in contrast to the machine-like efficiency of Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. Don't forget that Ginobili hit a "game-winner'' on Saturday as well.

It just didn't, well, win the game.

With 1.7 seconds left Ginobili went around a Duncan pick and got to the basket to convert a lefty layup that deflated all the energy out of the AAC.

Until Carter got the last say.

Carter is relatively new to this role that Ginobili has perfected. For the majority of his career, Carter was the "franchise guy.'' He had to carry the scoring load for the first 10 years of his career. Never has Giniobili averaged more than 20 points a game for a season in his career. Carter did it 10 times.

Now things have evened out between the two. This season Ginobili averaged 12.3 points per game off the bench. Carter averaged 11.9.

It's a testament to these two men that they are still contributing this much at their ages (Carter is 37 and Ginobili is 36), but Rick Carlisle and Gregg Popovich deserve credit as well. Lesser coaches would likely have not known how to utilize these two players at this stage of their career and be able to depend on them with the success of their team. (Just look at Carter's last two forgettable stops in Phoenix and Orlando where at times he just seemed like another veteran taking away playing time from promising younger players.)

After Game 3, Carlisle spoke very highly of Carter, making the game-winner seem like a culmination of everything Carter has contributed to the Mavericks in his three years in Dallas.
"Vince really deserves this," Carlisle said. "He's been so good for us and he's been about so many of the right things. You always hope a guy like that can have a moment like this in a big playoff game."

Popovich doesn't have to say anything like that about Ginobili at this point. It's basically understood.

Carter and Ginobili have very similar roles in this series in terms of what they are asked to accomplish. However, they go about accomplishing it in very different ways. Anyone who has enjoyed watching these two players wow audiences for more than a decade should be able to appreciate the way they've adapted to their situations in order to win games.

Whichever of these two can manage to get more of their respective fingerprints on this series may very well be the one advancing to the second round. Game 4 was a great example of how they impact the game and how their coaches used them on the court.

We only got through half of the first quarter without Ginobili or Carter. With 6:18 left in the first quarter, Popovich inserted Ginobili into the game. At the time the Mavericks were leading 12-2 and the Spurs' offense looked completely lost. Ginobili quickly went about fixing their offensive struggles. He scored a layup, the first of many, just over a minute after being put into the game.

Carlisle inserted Carter for Nowitzki just seven seconds after Ginobili came in, and Vince rewarded his coach with five first-quarter points. Ginobili had eight of his own in the first. Neither started, but both contributed early.
It would go that way throughout Game 4, coaches' moves mirroring each other. But Ginobili finished the game with 23 points, five assists and three rebounds in 28 minutes. Carter scored just eight points, five assists and three rebounds made just two shots.

And Manu's team won, 93-89.

Once again, their roles were extremely similar. Carter played 12 more seconds than Ginobili in Game 4. The Mavericks' bench has been spectacular for much of this series, but San Antonio had the best bench in the NBA this season and they came out and scored 50 points Monday. They were led by Ginobili. Carter couldn't match him. He hasn't been able to create offense in this series the way his counterpart has and he didn't have a last-second miracle to save his team Monday.

Tonight means more mirrors. More opportunities. More resume-building. The more successful sixth man, we think, will lead directly to the more successful team.

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