CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — From Manu Ginobili to Tony Parker to DeJuan Blair and numerous others, the San Antonio Spurs have made a habit of turning overlooked players into major contributors.
Gary Neal may be next in line.
The surprising rookie hit five of seven 3-pointers and scored 15 points in Monday night’s 95-91 victory over the reeling Charlotte Bobcats. The Spurs needed the cushion he provided before Ginobili’s clinching layup with 4.9 seconds left ended Charlotte’s late comeback bid and secured the Spurs’ fourth straight win.
“Huge, huge. Those five 3s took a lot of pressure off us,” said Ginobili, who scored 26 points. “If you have a player that’s so reliable making those 3s, it feels really good to penetrate and kick or draw plays for him.”
So who is this guy?
The 26-year-old Neal started his college career at La Salle, but left after he was accused of rape, a charge for which he was acquitted. He transferred to Towson, went undrafted and spent three seasons playing in Italy, Spain and Turkey.
He was ready to take a break last summer when his agent called, saying the Spurs wanted him to come to their summer league minicamp.
“I was in Europe for 10 months and you kind of want to relax and rest your body,” Neal said. “But my agent told me that San Antonio is famous for bringing in guys and giving them contracts if they perform at a high level. That was a sign for me that this is a good opportunity.”
Neal scored 16 points in a win over the Los Angeles Clippers last week. Monday his consecutive 3s to put San Antonio ahead 88-82 with 5:48 left.
“He’s new to the league this year but he’s not impressed or intimidated by anything,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He just comes to play, he’s hard-nosed.”
Tim Duncan had 14 points and 10 rebounds and Tony Parker had 12 points and eight assists for the Spurs, who nearly blew a nine-point lead with under 3 minutes left.
Charlotte, which was 31-10 at home last season en route to the franchise’ first playoff berth, fell to 0-3 on its home floor thanks to 40 percent shooting from the field.
Tyrus Thomas had 16 points and eight rebounds off the bench and Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw had 15 points apiece for the Bobcats. But Gerald Wallace was 2 of 11 from the field and D.J. Augustin 3 of 15 as Charlotte slipped to 1-6.
“D.J., Jack and Gerald going 9 of 39, I don’t care who you’re playing and you’re going to have a tough time,” coach Larry Brown said. “To be in the game with us shooting it that way and turning it over again, like we do, it’s a miracle we had a chance.”
The Spurs, who blew a big lead Saturday before hanging on to beat Houston in overtime, had a similar late meltdown before Ginobili bailed them out.
Thomas’ dunk and ensuing missed free throw was rebounded by Derrick Brown, whose layup with 26.8 seconds left cut Charlotte’s deficit to 93-91.
After a timeout, the Bobcats decided not foul.
“The goal was to eat all the clock possible, but at the same time you don’t want to take a really bad shot,” Ginobili said. “It was a miscommunication between Boris and Thomas and one left. I had a pretty good look.”
It wasn’t the start owner Michael Jordan envisioned when he declared the Bobcats should be better than last season’s 44-38 team that was swept by Orlando in the first round.
With Brown still trying to figure out a rotation after losing Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler in the offseason, the Bobcats continued to look disjointed on offense. And Brown wasn’t afraid to yank his starters.
Jackson, who had six of Charlotte’s 14 turnovers, played only 13 minutes in the second half.
“Some nights I may have six turnovers, some nights I may have none,” Jackson said. “Tonight was one of those nights where we weren’t getting it done and the young guys had our backs. Hopefully there won’t be too many like that.”
NOTES: Jackson said he’s decided not to appeal his $50,000 fine for verbally abusing the officials last week. “I just want to go on with the season,” he said. … Bobcats C Kwame Brown went through an intense workout at the morning shootaround as he nears a return from a severely sprained left ankle. He said he needs to get into game shape and has some pain when he jumps off one leg. “The last thing to heal is the bone bruise,” Brown said. “Cutting and pivoting still bother me a little.” … Spurs G James Anderson had six points a night after missing a game for the birth of his daughter.