ST. FRANCIS, Wis. — Gary Neal headed for the bench with 23 seconds left on the clock. From there he watched his dream of winning an NBA championship slip away.
Coming so close to something chased since childhood to only watch it slip away is a painful feeling. A little over a month after the San Antonio Spurs lost a 3-2 series lead and fell in Game 7 of the NBA Finals to the Miami Heat, Neal still isn’t over it.
Now with a new team and in a new city, Neal has brought that chip on his shoulder to the Milwaukee Bucks.
“That was a tough situation,” Neal said. “Being that close to having an opportunity to win a championship and coming up a little short is frustrating and disappointing at the same time, but it also leaves you with a whole lot of work to do.
“You look at it individually and say ‘If I could have done this, or if I could have done that.’ That’s just motivation as a player to get better as a player, just the motivation saying I could have done more.”
Neal is one of San Antonio’s top players off the bench. He burst onto the national scene in Game 3 of the NBA Finals where he scored 24 points and hit six 3-pointers, leading the Spurs to a 36-point win.
Neal averaged 9.5 points per game during the regular season, making his 9.4 scoring average in the seven-game series with Miami an expected stat. But what eats at Neal is what happened in the final three games.
He entered Game 5 averaging 13.5 points and connecting on 54.5 percent of his 3-pointers. Neal scored a total of 12 points in the final three games, making just one-of-eight attempts from beyond the arc.
“It’s just made me hungrier,” Neal said. “It has just motivated me more to be the person that I am. I’m a worker. I’m a guy that’s going to get in the gym and get shots up, watch film, stay in the weight room. Coming that close to the ultimate goal and coming up short has motivated me and will continue to motivate me to become a better player.”
Milwaukee signed Neal to a two-year, $6.5 million contract with the hope he can provide a similar spark off the bench and bring some of the winning culture from San Antonio.
The Bucks have cleared house from last year’s team that struggled with its chemistry and already have 10 new players on the roster.
“He’s trying to get the culture going in the right way, get the mentality going in the right way,” Neal said of Drew. “I think when you are a new coach coming into a new situation, that’s the first thing you want to address. We’ve had good conversations about that. He’s kind of put it on the table what he expects from me, both work ethic wise and attitude wise. I’m just looking forward to the challenge and I’m excited to be here and be a part of the Bucks organization.”
After starting his college career at La Salle, Neal was forced to leave the school because of an off-the-court issue and played his final two seasons at Towson. He went undrafted after his senior year and signed a contract to play professionally in Turkey for Pinar Karsiyaka.
He then signed with FC Barcelona after the Spanish club bought his contract in 2008. From there it was on to Pallacanestro Treviso in Italy and then to Unicaja Malaga in Spain.
Finally, San Antonio came calling in 2010. The long road to the NBA had paid off, and Neal got to spend three seasons playing with one of the most successful franchises in league history.
“I’m just going to try to communicate and show through my work ethic what I’ve learned in three years in San Antonio,” Neal said. “Of course I still have a lot to learn, but just being able to win and play in playoff games and (playoff) series (is big). Just to be able to talk to those guys and let them know what I’ve been through and what it takes to get to that level.”
Neal’s listed by some as a point guard and others as a shooting guard, but won’t put a label on himself. He says he can make plays at either guard position, and the Bucks will likely need him to spend time at both spots.
Neal’s primary role is expected to be backup to O.J. Mayo at shooting guard. The career 39.8 percent 3-point shooter will give Milwaukee a scoring punch off the bench — something they lost when Mike Dunleavy signed with Chicago.
Coming off the bench is something Neal is just fine with, as he’s started just 25 of his 204 career games.
“I just want to be able to contribute, starting or coming off the bench,” Neal said. “Whatever coach Drew decides he thinks is best for the team I think is what’s best for me. I’m willing to come in here and accept whatever role is given to me and try to make the best of it like I did in San Antonio.”