Posted Apr 28 2011 6:59AM
SAN ANTONIO -- Gary Neal didn't really come out of nowhere. It was Turkey, Italy and Spain and before that, two different American college programs and the legal system.
Neal wasn't the most unlikely person in the arena to be given the task of saving the Spurs' season. That might have been the man selling nachos on the main concourse or the guy inside the Coyote mascot suit.
But on a team with Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, the 26-year-old undrafted rookie might as well have been wearing a giant furry head with pointy ears and a snout for all the notoriety he carried out of the timeout with 1.7 left in a fourth quarter, a season and maybe an era.
A year ago, Neal was playing for Unicaja Malaga in Spain, wondering if he'd ever get closer to the NBA than an Internet connection and a video stream. Now, he was getting ready to become a YouTube sensation, a walking defibrillator.
"It's kind of a great feeling when Coach Pop draws a play up and you see that you're going to get the shot and nobody looks around the huddle and questions or anything like that," Neal said.
Coach Gregg Popovich was excited at what he might have in Neal from the first day last summer when the kid walked into the Spurs' gym for a workout and burned up the nets with his hot shooting. Those on hand claimed it was the best shooting performance ever in a gym that was once home to (among others) Sean Elliott, Robert Horry and Steve Kerr.
But the lazy days of summer are a long way from crazy nights of the NBA playoffs, especially those final excruciating seconds that can melt reputations or forge legends.
The No. 1-seeded Spurs had already been pushed to edge of elimination by the Grizzlies. Down 3-1 in the series after having blown a 16-point lead in Game 5, they had their hearts nearly squashed when the video review of Ginobili's shot from the right corner just a half-second earlier had showed the tip of his left toe scraping the 3-point line.
Instead of a tie game with 2.2 seconds left, San Antonio was still down by one. After Zach Randolph made a pair of free throws, it was a 97-94 hole with 1.7 remaining when the Spurs went to the huddle.
"It was not that Pop got crazy and made a crazy decision," Ginobili said. "He knew what was going on."
Not that there wasn't a time when Ginobili might have wondered on the day he first heard the name Gary Neal.
"It was mid-September," Ginobili said. "I was working out and he showed up one day. They told me that this was the new shooter we had. I'm not lying when I say that I saw him miss the first 20 shots that he took.
"I'm not kidding. We were playing open gym and he was shooting confidently. But he wasn't making one."
So here was a team with three All-Stars with 10 championship rings among them putting the ball -- and their faith -- into the hands of someone they had never laid eyes on eight months ago. It was like asking the winner of the karaoke contest to step in for the Three Tenors and belt out an aria.
If only they really knew how far he'd traveled and what he'd overcome to get there. Neal not only spent three years toiling with Pinar Karsiyaka, FC Barcelona and Benetton Treviso before playing in Malaga last season. First, he had to be acquitted of a rape charge at La Salle University that led to his transfer to Towson and likely is the reason he went undrafted in 2007.
"It's been a long road for me," Neal said. "It's been great and I'm just blessed and thankful to be here.
"When I think about where I've been and where I was this time a year ago, in Malaga, Spain, I never could have pictured this, being in a Game 5 of the NBA playoffs with an opportunity to tie the game up and extend the series."
Popovich pictured it after watching Neal break the Spurs rookie record for 3-pointers made and 3-point field goal percentage, hitting 129 of 308 (.419). Less than two weeks into his NBA career, he made five treys in a win over Charlotte and on March 23 he sank a half-dozen in a game at Denver.
It was a night when the Spurs needed their Big Three to be big, and they were. Ginobili had 33 points, six assists and six rebounds. Parker had 24 points and nine rebounds. And Duncan set the pace early with 13 points and 12 rebounds.
Yet the Grizzlies were still the Grizzlies, never thinking of surrender and were 1.7 seconds away from completing one of the biggest playoff upsets in history. The Spurs needed more than big. They needed huge.
Maybe it wasn't quite as unlikely a shot as Duncan's 3-pointer that forced overtime and eventually stunned Phoenix in Game 1 of the 2008 playoffs. But it was a shot by a far more unlikely candidate.
To that point, Neal had played only 10 minutes on the night and was in the game for a total of 13 seconds in the fourth quarter.
Then Ginobili threw him the pass.
"You really don't think about the magnitude of making or missing it," Neal said. "You just think about trying to get the best shot that you can get.
"I knew Timmy had set a great screen and the guy defending me was kind of behind me. I knew that he was going to overplay me. He was a little aggressive. So I got a strong swing through on my strong hand right and I just got my legs into it."
There is so much more work for the Spurs still to do get up off the canvas, beginning with winning in Memphis for the first time all season.
But if they should do the improbable and overcome the Grizzlies' grit and wild home-court atmosphere to force a Game 7 -- and then do the near-impossible and get out of this thing -- they'll have taken wing on a prayer from the far side of the world.
"It felt good," said Gary Neal.
The breath of life.
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