Saturday, February 18, 2012
Neal earning his keep with clutch shots
By Justin Verrier
LOS ANGELES -- For three years, after splitting his college career between Division I Also-Ran East and Division I Also-Ran Slightly Less East, Gary Neal had to earn his paycheck overseas, making stops in Turkey, Spain, Italy and Spain again just to continue to make a living playing ball.
Now, with a little over 100 NBA games to his name, and no scrolling necessary to sift through his ESPN.com player card, Neal’s meal ticket comes from hoisting up some of the biggest shots, for one of the most veteran teams in the league, oftentimes in its biggest games.
With so many big-time heaves already tucked neatly into his silver waistband -- including a 3-pointer to force overtime in Game 5 of the Spurs’ first-round series against the Grizzlies last postseason -- that he’s developed his own clutch cult, Neal only added to the growing legend by hitting the game-saving 3-pointer at the end of regulation, and then another to break the final tie in overtime in the Spurs’ 103-100 victory over the Clippers at Staples Center.
"It wasn't that hard for Gary Neal. That's what he does," said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. "If he doesn't shoot it, he's not going to play. I'll just sit him because that's what he does best. He knows what he gets his paycheck for, and he's always looking to let it go."
With the Clips inbounding the ball in front of the Spurs’ bench up three with 9.5 seconds to go, all that was left was the fouling formalities. But Ryan Gomes attempted to hit Chris Paul streaking toward the midcourt line, and Paul, in an apparent attempt to avoid a backcourt violation, made his best pass of the day -- to Neal, right at the top of the key of San Antonio’s basket.
Not even Neal, whose thoughts were still consumed with hacking Paul and getting him to the line, was sure what had happened at first, or what to do next.
"My first dribble was actually toward the rim," Neal said, "and then I remembered we were down three, so I had to get a 3-pointer."
Immediately after he said that in his postgame remarks, a sharp cackle could be heard to Neal’s left.
"You can’t tell them that," Richard Jefferson said with a big grin, ribbing Neal like he was still a rookie. "You’re supposed to say, 'Yeah, I knew all along. I made a play on the ball. I went right for it.'"
Neal still needs to work on his post-conquest quotes. The shot part he has down cold.
With the clock winding down, Neal needed to get a shot up quickly, but he never rushed, never lost the stone-cold expression that seems to be tattooed on his face. After catching the Paul "pass," the second-year guard took one step into the 3-point arc, took a dribble and stepped back over the line, squared his body perfectly and sprung into the air.
The ball swirled its way down the net, flushing the Clippers' last best chance of ending the Spurs' unwavering win streak.
"Probably the worst play I’ve been a part of since I’ve been in the NBA," Paul said.
But for Neal, the play served as redemption after a costly blunder of his own.
Seven seconds earlier, Neal darted past a double screen from Tim Duncan and Jefferson and received the inbounds pass from Tony Parker just a foot back from where he caught Paul’s. But it was the one from his own point guard that proved more difficult, as the ball slipped out of Neal’s hands as he tried to bring it below his waist and Randy Foye out-dove him to take control of the game.
Neal didn’t know what had just happened. So he lay there, underneath the basket, his hands covering his brow.
"First of all I wanted to strangle him because I didn’t know what happened," Parker said. "But that can happen to anyone and we kept playing."
Neal would quickly bounce back with his game-tying 3. And it was Neal who would ultimately break the tie for good, catching a kickout pass from Duncan right in front of the Clippers’ bench and draining another triple with 25.4 seconds in overtime to give the Spurs a three-point advantage, one they would never relinquish.
But not without one last dose of drama with -- who else? -- Neal right dab in the middle.
Up three with 8 seconds to go, Neal, an 80 percent career free throw shooter, missed both of his freebies. No harm would come of it, as Paul's last-gasp 3-point heave rimmed out, but the two misses were on Neal’s mind as much as the two 3-pointers.
"You had to go there," Danny Green said after Neal brought up the last misfires in the locker room almost as soon as his late-game heroics.
"I missed nine other shots tonight, too," said Neal, the underdog gene still at work long after toiling away at La Salle, Towson and overseas.
I jumped in: "Yeah, but no one will remember those."
"I will," Neal said.
He needs to. That's how he earns his pay.
Justin Verrier is an NBA editor for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter.