Green, Neal Scorch The Heat In true Spurs fashion, San Antonio’s supplementary players lit up the Heat in Game 3.

AP Photo/Eric Gay

When Danny Green stepped up onto the Spurs’ newly minted media scaffold, this one built in a chilly corner on the event level floor of the AT&T Center to accommodate the additional media that the Finals stage brings, he didn’t know what to do. A Spanish writer raised his hand so that the moderator would call on him for the first question, but Green took it as a friendly wave and awkwardly shot back a smirk. After a minute of deafening silence, a nervous Green tried to kickoff the conversation, letting out a quick “What’s up?” to the crowd of reporters.

Green had never been on that stage before, or any other like it. As a player that has been waived three times during his career — twice by the Spurs and once by the LeBron-era Cavaliers — and had his confidence sapped by ill-timed shooting slumps in the past two post-seasons, Green is just happy that he got another chance from the Spurs. His lack of composure in rough and crucial times, specifically when he shot 4-of-23 from three in the Western Conference Finals last year, made him a bit of a liability to a coach like Gregg Popovich, someone whose fundamental principle is to stick to the process no matter the result.

But here we are, a little over a year after he had the worst shooting stretch of his life against the Thunder, and Green is now a legitimate candidate, if not the favorite, to be the 2013 NBA Finals MVP. According to Popovich, it took a pair of stern and wise head coaches — Pop and Green’s college coach Roy Williams — that cared for Green’s development as a player and as a person giving him a call this off-season to preach to him about remaining confident in himself no matter how many shots he missed.

Confidence is now the least of Green’s problems. The 25-year old shooting guard has been unconscious from the outside in the Finals, his fortitude growing with each and every shot release, and he’s even expanded his game to include a couple of off-the-bounce pull-up threes that found nothing but net. Through three games, Green is shooting an implausible 16-of-23 from three point-range, including his 5-of-5 outing from deep in game two and his 7-of-9 performance from beyond the arc in game three. When you go to a game with guys like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili on the floor, you expect to be wowed in some way, but never did I think that my jaw would be on the floor because Danny Green was putting on one of the best shooting exhibitions in NBA Finals history.

Due in large part to Green’s game-high 27 points, the Spurs blew out the Heat 113-77 last night to take a 2-1 lead in the series.

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The Spurs probably don’t win Game 1 without Green’s four 3-pointers and Game 3 would have been closer if it wasn’t for his second half explosion. When you throw in the absolutely phenomenal defense Green has played on LeBron James, both in man-on-man situations and as a help defender, I believe he’s been the most valuable player for the Spurs in this series. With Parker, Ginobili and Duncan all struggling offensively, Green has stepped up and is currently the leading scorer in this series at 18.7 points per game, which, I’m sure, is how we all saw this series playing out.

Just about the only thing that has been more surprising than Green’s emergence as much more than a role player in this series was Gary Neal emerging as much more than a role player in Game 3. Although Green gave the game it’s grand finale, it was Neal that put on a fireworks show in the first half. Neal had 14 first-half points, including 4-of-6 shooting from downtown, and he played a key part in the most important sequence of the game: The closing minutes of the first half.

Neal hit a 3 with 3:27 left in the second quarter, putting the Spurs up 11, then their largest lead of the series. The Heat answered with a 12-1 run that tied the game with 26 seconds left in the half.

Then the Spurs pulled off the best two-for-one I’ve seen this season.

Parker somehow got a running fadeaway three from the corner to go, salvaging the two-for-one chance by two seconds. LeBron would attack a bit earlier on the other end, but his foray to the rim, like all of his others in Game 3, was a failure, this one halted by Green’s tremendous block. Duncan gathered the loose ball off the block and tossed it up to Parker, who quickly found Neal sprinting up the floor. Neal was so eager to get up a shot that he wasn’t even on balance when he let it fly.

On this night, balance didn’t matter.

Just like that, all of Miami’s momentum was gone and they went into the locker room with their eyes staring at the floor instead of being content that they withstood San Antonio’s best punch without losing any ground.

***

Neal is Green’s reclamation brother. Neal said he and Green have always showed up two hours early to practice since they became Spurs, doing everything in their power to earn the respect and trust of the coaching staff. Neither was highly touted coming out of college and neither was expected to do much, but by working their butts off, they put themselves in a position to succeed.

While Green was a second-round pick when he left the University of North Carolina, Neal was not seen as an NBA prospect coming out of Towson. Neal decided to play internationally, making stops in Turkey and Spain before settling down in Treviso, Italy. Neal said he was comfortable financially with his Lega Basket earnings, but in July 2010, two major events happened that would change his life forever.

Firstly, Neal said “I do” to his wife Leah on July 10, and the two immediately began planning a honeymoon to Atlantis to celebrate their marriage. It was around then, however, when Neal’s agent contacted him to let him know the Spurs had interest in him and invited him in for a mini-camp, which eventually led to a spot on San Antonio’s Summer League team. Neal and his wife decided he should pursue the opportunity to play in the NBA, which was something he never seriously considered before. If things didn’t work out, there was always that trip to Atlantis and a solid career playing pro ball in Europe waiting for them.

nealThere would be no return trip to Treviso for Neal. San Antonio’s front office saw something in the undersized combo guard that made them believe he’d work in their system, and by July 22 he had a three-year deal with an NBA team. As a shot-first player without elite playmaking ability and some poor defensive habits (as well as less than ideal size), it didn’t seem like the perfect marriage, but for all of the ups-and-downs that Neal has had during his tenure as a Spur, it was all worth it for last night alone.

Neal was 9-of-17 from the field and 6-of-10 from deep in Game 3, giving the Spurs 24 points off the bench; collectively, Parker, Duncan and Ginobili had 25 points last night. He is not a perfect player, but he has never struggled in the confidence department the way Green has, so, for better or for worse, he will always hoist any semi-open look he gets.

In Game 3, it didn’t matter if Neal was wide open, contested, three feet beyond the arc or even driving into the lane for pretty floaters. It was all working, because he never stopped working.


The Spurs had a whopping 29 assists in Game 3 and drilled a Finals record 16 3-pointers. San Antonio moved the ball extremely well, whipping it from side-to-side, forcing the Heat to rotate all over the floor until they left someone open for a split second. With Miami lacking the attention to detail that helped them succeed in Game 2, the Spurs turned the game into a rout. The more the Heat have to move defensively, the better the chance they make a mistake, and the Spurs were making Miami move more often than a military family in Game 3.

When Green was asked about some of the crazy things that were occurring in this series — such as him outscoring LeBron and him getting up on the podium — he was taken aback.

“I never thought I’d be up here talking to you guys,” Green said.

Neither did we, Danny.

(This column was originally written for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. It is being republished here for my personal archives. If you wish to share this article, please use this link.)

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