Neal had gone undrafted three years earlier out of Towson University and had found a home with Benetton Treviso in the Italian League, for which he made good as a shooter and playmaker. He worked out for the Spurs in their minicamp, then found himself as their featured guard in Vegas.
Dozens of players like Neal come to Las Vegas every July with the measured hope that if they can impress the team execs and scouts in the stands, they might find their way to an NBA training camp in September and, if they’re supremely fortunate, onto an NBA roster in the coming season.
But even the most exuberant optimists rarely dream of taking center stage in an NBA Finals game. Healthy confidence is one thing, but delusions of grandeur are quite another.
Grandeur came calling on Tuesday night when Neal unleashed a barrage of long-range bombs in the Spurs’ 113-77 Game 3 whooping of the Miami Heat. Neal scored 24 points on 9-for-17 shooting from the field, including a 6-for-10 night from beyond the arc.
“He's a professional,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “And he's a quality individual, and he made himself ready and he really helped us tonight, obviously.”
Neal was the most dangerous player on the floor during some of the game’s crucial stretches, and his performance and role looked much like they did on the final day of 2010 Summer League in front a few hundred basketball die-hards. Our quiet mention of Neal that afternoon from our roundup:
The Spurs bludgeoned the Grizzlies by sticking Benetton Treviso guard Gary Neal in the left corner and creating open looks for him off drive-and-kicks or curls. When sets broke down for the Spurs, Neal was the safety valve. He hit 6-of-9 attempts from beyond the arc in the first half.
A drive-and-kick from Manu Ginobili got things going in Game 3 for Neal, who drained his first 3-pointer at the top of the arc just before the end of the first quarter. Neal heated up in the second quarter, accounting for half of the Spurs’ successful field goals in the frame.
“It was unbelievable,” Spurs guard Tony Parker said. “I told [Neal], 'If they keep trapping me, you are going to get the ball and you are going to be able to get shots.' I said, 'We need a big game from you,' and I was saying that for like a week. I was very happy for him.”
In classic Spurs fashion, Neal was anything but a gunner; he merely seized opportunity when it surfaced. When miscommunication by the Heat twice in the second quarter left Neal with all kinds of room behind the line early in the shot clock, Neal fired away. And when Mike Miller bit hard on his shot fake from 24 feet, Neal took a single dribble into space for an open 19-footer.
Of course, it wasn’t all table scraps. Neal’s buzzer-beater in transition during the final frenetic seconds of the first half brought down the AT&T Center. It also fed Neal’s confidence, as he truly started to hunt for shots in the second half.
Less than 10 seconds after he checked into the game in the third quarter, Neal drove fearlessly past Dwyane Wade and landed a floater. A couple of minutes later, he drove aggressively into the teeth of the Heat’s defense and beat it with a runner. The blowout was a multidagger affair, but Neal’s pair of long 3-pointers during the opening minute of the fourth quarter stretched a 15-point Spurs lead to 21 and effectively buried the Heat.
Neal has seen a steady uptick in minutes during the Finals and far more action than against both the Memphis Grizzlies and Golden State Warriors in the previous two rounds. Though Neal didn’t shoot the ball particularly well in Miami (six for 16 from the field over the two games), his torrid first-half performance, coupled with Parker’s departure in the third quarter with an injured hamstring, meant additional minutes.
“As a professional, it's your job to stay ready,” Neal said. “You never know when your number is going to be called. You don't know anything. So you have to come into the gym and continue to get your reps up and continue to prepare yourself for whatever assignment the coach decides to play you in. The last three games in the Finals I've been a steady rotation guy. I'm just thankful that I was able to stay mentally and physically ready for this opportunity that I could take advantage of it.”
There are dozens of guys in the NBA who are given multiple chances from teams vested in their potential. No front office or coach wants to be tarred with a draft bust or not making the most of a born talent.
Then there are players like Neal who, if they fail, cost their teams nothing. There’s little investment, so virtually nothing lost. The San Antonio Spurs specialize in these cases, identifying skilled players with tireless work ethics who were disqualified by scores of other teams for whatever reason -- having limited upside or being a "tweener," in draftspeak.
Neal himself felt he might have been one of those players. He found comfort in the Italian League, through which he earned a steady paycheck. But as he toiled in anonymity, he still believed he could play at the NBA level. He didn’t carry a chip on his shoulder or mutter about not being given a chance. He just went about his work until the Spurs came calling.
“I think to play this game of basketball, you have to believe that your abilities are just as good as other guys',” Neal said. “I mean, I felt like I had the ability to play in the NBA. It was just a matter of just getting the right opportunity."
As the NBA Finals rages on, dozens of NBA general managers and personnel people are in Neal’s old stomping ground of Treviso for the adidas Eurocamp. They’re combing over the talent from all over the world, trying to find players who fit a certain mold.
Meanwhile, back in San Antonio, Neal sat at a podium usually reserved for those who come into the league with a birthright.
“It's a dream come true,” Neal said.