Neal saves Spurs' season ... for now
An aging dynasty nearly died by a toe Wednesday night. Instead, it lives on thanks to the hand of a rookie.
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Facing the most inglorious exit of the Three Amigos Era, down three games to one to the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, the San Antonio Spurs didn't turn to Tim Duncan or Manu Ginobili or Tony Parker with the season 1.7 seconds from flatlining. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich's first option didn't wear a jersey that will hang one day in the AT&T Center rafters.
Instead, Gary Neal, an undrafted and unwanted longshot, took the long shot that immediately becomes part of San Antonio's storied playoff lore. The 27-foot three-pointer at the regulation buzzer resuscitated the No. 1 seed going into overtime of an eventual 110-103 must-have victory that sent the series back to Memphis.
The Grizzlies still lead 3-2, with a closeout chance Friday night back at FedEx Forum. They've already won two in this series off Beale Street, including an 18-point blowout in Game 4 that left the upstarts on the brink of the Western Conference semifinals.
A second victory in San Antonio was there for the taking in Game 5, after the Grizzlies rallied from an early 16-point hole to lead when it (nearly) mattered most. Memphis was up by three points on three separate occasions in the final 15 seconds of regulation, twice in the last 10 and once with less than two.
Teams like the Spurs don't give up those sorts of leads. The Grizzlies did. Both coaches referred to their teams' "character" in the aftermath, and the fight in each side for four-plus quarters was proof enough that both were right. But Memphis coach Lionel Hollins touched on a weakness that won't get fixed in the draft or free agency.
Neal's shot deflated a team in new surroundings. Winning in the playoffs is as much about head games as X's and O's. Memphis has never won a playoff series.
"We had too many guys that were hurt and not mature enough to let it go," Hollins acknowledged.
So, when Parker began in OT to knock down the mid-range jumper he made look routine all season, the outcome seemed inevitable. It didn't matter that Mike Conley outplayed Parker for 48 minutes or Zach Randolph dominated San Antonio's frontline in the fourth quarter. The Spurs, with new life and five more minutes, weren't about to go down in five games.
"We hung in tough," Popovich said. "That's all about character, and I never doubt that our guys have that, for sure."
San Antonio wasn't without its breaks — the kind champions often need on that title road. The biggest two points of Manu Ginobili's 33 came with 2.2 seconds left and followed a wild loose-ball sequence of tips that would have ended the series if Memphis had corralled the ball. Instead, it found its way to the guy who missed Game 1 waiting for his elbow to heal, and Ginobili drifted into the corner, letting it fly as he flew out of bounds.
The shot splashed through the net, another chapter of Spurs/Manu magic for all to witness. The apparent three-pointer tied the game at 95-95 ... but wait. Ginobili's toe was on the line, as replays proved, and the Spurs were still down one. Had the Grizzlies gotten the break underdogs almost never get?
Yes, but no. A half-second later, down three once again after two more Randolph free throws, San Antonio had the ball back at midcourt. On the fateful inbounds, Memphis stopper Shane Battier failed to hedge out beyond the arc and shadow Neal, who took one dribble in rhythm and delivered the electric shock needed to jumpstart the Spurs' heart.
"When you are facing elimination you always get something out of nowhere, some energy or those kinds of shots," Ginobili said. "Sometimes that happens. I don't really think that we showed the heart of a champion. We got lucky. It's the truth.
"They played better in the second half."
Neal doesn't have the postseason experience of his more glamorous teammates. He doesn't own the pedigree of the other young first-rounders who round out Pop's rotation. The NBA took a pass on Neal coming out of Towson State three years ago, and he bounced around Europe before making the Spurs last summer as almost an afterthought. He's a 26-year-old, and, for the moment, San Antonio's newest hero.
"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, and it went in today."
Maybe his journey hardened Neal, giving him that unwavering belief his more decorated teammates possess. Popovich certainly believed, admitting he wanted the ball in Neal's hands before Ginobili or Parker or even Duncan. That kind of faith is what the Grizzlies lost in those 1.7 seconds.
Memphis isn't without hope. A home game is next and the Spurs have never won a series in their history when trailing 3-1. The Grizzlies can also take heart in Ginobili's words — they did play better in the second half. Can they do it again Friday against the best the West had to offer for 82 games?
"Now we just have to stick to our game plan and do what we know we can do well," Conley said. "I think the fans at home deserve that. We are playing a great team in the Spurs, and we embrace that. You want to play the best. You just go in focused, execute, and hopefully we can get it done at home."