SAN ANTONIO (AP) – Manu Ginobili isn’t afraid to flaunt his talent. When it comes to his gold medal from the Athens Olympics, it’s a different story.

He lets others do the gloating for him.

Teammate Tony Parker asked to borrow the gold medal for San Antonio’s tip-off luncheon earlier this season so he could pull a little prank. Emceeing the event before a crowd of about 1,000 sponsors and team employees, Parker summoned Spurs star Tim Duncan, coach Gregg Popovich and forward Sean Marks to the dais.

Duncan and Popovich had been in Athens with the U.S. men’s basketball team, which wound up with the bronze medal after losing to Ginobili and Argentina in the semifinals.

“He got the photographer to come around, too, and he put on the gold medal and said This is as close as you guys are ever going to get to this,”‘ recalled Marks, who competed for New Zealand in the Olympics.

These days, Ginobili, Duncan and Popovich are comrades rather than competitors, and each played a big part in the Spurs taking a 1-0 lead over the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals.

Ginobili shot 6-for-6 in the fourth quarter and led all scorers with 26 points, and Duncan had a quiet 24 points and 17 rebounds in the Spurs’ 84-69 victory Thursday night.

Ginobili’s play might have come as a shock to those who don’t pay close attention to the NBA until the finals, but it was no surprise to anyone who has watched the steady progression of the best basketball player Argentina has ever produced.

Now in his third NBA season, Ginobili has already won an NBA title, an Olympic gold medal and a silver medal from the 2002 World Championships. He was a two-time MVP of the Italian League and the 2001 Euroleague finals MVP – quite a collection of hardware for someone only 27 years old.

“I think the consistency he shows,” Popovich said, “is there every night. It’s not once in a while, but that hellbent-for-leather sort of attitude, the willingness to take big shots, the willingness to do what it takes to win and to do it at the highest possible level of intensity, is there every single minute he steps on the court.

“I never talk to him. I never try to motivate him. I never say a word. I just watch.”

The left-hander with the shaggy dark hair and a burgeoning bald spot was Argentina’s leading scorer and best player, and his crafty style of play blended beautifully with that club’s assortment of sharpshooting big men and precision playmakers.

As he keeps getting better and the stages keep getting bigger, more people are opening their eyes to the special talents of the kid from Bahia Blanca.

“When he gets into a rhythm like that where he starts going, it’s like you want to sit there and watch him play,” Duncan said. “You get caught up in what he does and that’s probably the worst thing that we can do is just sit there and watch him play, but you get mesmerized by what he’s doing.”

Ginobili plans to eventually build some sort of a display for his gold medal, but as of yet he hasn’t done anything special with it.

“I appreciate it so much. It’s one of the biggest treasures I have,” Ginobili said. “I haven’t looked at it for a while, but I think about it a lot, and I have a DVD of our games that I’ve watched two, three, four times.”

Ginobili’s performance in Game 1 – especially his 15 fourth-quarter points – added to his career highlight reel, which will include another title if the Spurs can continue to outexecute the Pistons.

Detroit coach Larry Brown said his team’s big men will need to demand the ball more so that the Pistons’ guards won’t take a majority of the shot attempts as they did Thursday night. Richard Hamilton took 21 shots and Chauncey Billups 16, while Rasheed Wallace tried only six shots and Ben Wallace five.

Ginobili’s 9-for-10 shooting in the second half was an aberration for the Spurs on a night when they won despite making only 43 percent of their shots. Whether he was slashing for dunks and floaters or shooting 3-pointers, Ginobili couldn’t miss.

“He took the ball anywhere he wanted to. He made every hustle play and he got to the rim. We just didn’t do a good job of keeping it in front of us, and his will was much greater than ours,” Brown said.

They were saying the same things about Ginobili last summer in Athens, and Ginobili has the ultimate athletic award to show for it.

Selected by San Antonio with the 57th overall pick of the 1999 draft, he has more than exceeded the team’s wildest expectations. Ginobili has become the Spurs’ main offensive weapon in the fourth quarters of this year’s playoff run, and his postseason average of 22.0 points is six higher than his regular-season average.

Popovich made a conscious decision after the Olympics to stop trying to rein in Ginobili’s game as he had tried to do in the past two seasons.

“The more I watched him play, the more film I watched, the more I realized there was going to be a hell of a lot more good doing it his way than my way,” Popovich said. “And at the beginning of this season, we made the commitment that we’re going to eat a couple of turnovers, or we’re going to eat a bad shot here and there, and we’re going to see where it goes. And this is where it’s gone.”


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