Gary Neal’s three as time expired saved the San Antonio Spurs season. Was it simply a game-changer, or did the rookie’s clutch shot swing the series and alter the Spurs playoff destiny?
In case you missed it, the Spurs came out firing in Game 5 with their backs against the wall, taking a 16 point lead midway through the 2nd quarter. By halftime, the lead was down to 8. At the end of the 3rd, the lead became a deficit. And with only 9 seconds to go and possession, San Antonio trailed by 3.
The Spurs inbounded the ball and nearly turned it over as the ball bounced off finger tips like a beach ball at your cousin’s graduation party. Finally, Ginobili gained possession, scrambled to the right corner and hoisted a desperation three while fading backwards to the Spurs bench and sideways to the cameras. Somehow, the shot fell, except it was only a two as Ginobili’s sneakers were a half size too big.
After Zack Randolph sank two free throws, the Spurs again trailed by 3 with 1.7 seconds remaining. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich drew up his final play. Surprisingly, it did not call for the ball to go to Ginobili, Richard Jefferson, or even Matt Bonner. Instead, Popovich opted for his 26-year-old rookie, Gary Neal. Neal caught the ball, correctly assumed his defender would overplay him, dribbled right and hoisted a deep three. 18,000 Spurs fans collectively stopped breathing until the ball sunk through the bottom of the net. Euphoria. Shock. Amazement. Relief. And most importantly, life.
While San Antonio went on to defeat Memphis in overtime, the long term impact of Neal’s shot on the series has yet to be seen. We know this, though, Memphis won’t simply surrender.
With the exception of Game 4, each game has been competitive and ultimately decided in the final minute. As spectacular as the Spurs late game heroics were, it doesn’t erase that they once again disappeared in the 3rd quarter, committed costly turnovers down the stretch, and failed to match the intensity of the Grizzlies for 48 consecutive minutes.
Memphis is also going home. Losing in such kick-to-the-groin fashion is twice as difficult to overcome when you follow it by going on the road. The Grizzlies are heading back to a raucous fan base that will be buzzing at the opportunity to win the franchise’s first playoff series.
Furthermore, despite an overall lack of championship pedigree, the Grizzlies are as composed and confident as a team with multiple titles. Ok, so maybe they’re not THAT composed (they did blow Game 5 after all), but they’re definitely confident. I know it’s easy to assume Game 5 will have lingering effects on the young Grizzlies. Some losses are more than losses. They’re confidence killers and momentum changers. However, Memphis has responded with a calm, cool cockiness to everything the Spurs have thrown at them. I find it hard to believe a devastating loss will send such a resilient team into a tailspin.
More importantly, the Spurs have yet to get any significant offensive contributions from their front court players. Without an offensive presence inside, Memphis’ athletic and lengthy guards have been mostly free to stay home on the Spurs guards. In addition to taking better care of the ball, the Spurs need production inside to free their guards and open up the three point line, something San Antonio has yet to accomplish in the series.
On the other hand, their dramatic, come from behind win in Game 5 could be just what the aging Spurs needed to wake themselves from their comatose state. It wouldn’t be the first time the course of a playoff series swung on one game. The Spurs now clearly own the momentum heading into Friday night’s Game 6 and despite being the West’s eighth seed, the pressure is on Memphis to close out San Antonio and not squander a 3-1 series lead. How the Grizzlies respond will ultimately decide who advances. In overtime of Game 5, for the first time in this series, the Spurs had Memphis on the ropes. San Antonio dictated play while the Memphis bench stared blankly like Ivan Drago after Rocky finally drew blood.
Closing out Memphis won’t be easy, though. A veteran Spurs team knows as much. Even their post game reaction indicates the Spurs know they didn’t accomplish anything by winning Game 5. San Antonio wasn’t even pretending they won Game 5 based on pedigree or effort. “I don’t really think that we showed the heart of a champion. We got lucky, it’s the truth,” said Ginobili.
Heart, luck, pedigree, whatever it is, the Spurs are alive, albeit it barely. Whether the Spurs Game 5 rally was simply a reminder of what they once were or another legendary shot that propels the Spurs to one more run at an NBA title like Sean Elliott’s Miracle on Memorial Day or Robert Horry’s dagger in Game 5 of the 2005 NBA Finals remains to be seen.
We’ll find out Friday night. Hopefully, Neal’s shot will be remembered as the start of a great run rather than another amazing play that ultimately meant little.