Gary Neal’s last second shot: an examination of a moment
To put it in a simple yet clichéd way, it’s difficult to know where to begin when discussing Gary Neal’s last second shot to send Wednesday night’s game into overtime.
There’s obviously the tactical elements which went into creating the shot: George Hill cuts from the top of the key to the near corner. Tim Duncan curls around Antonio McDyess’s screen to set one for Neal, who catches the ball a few feet beyond the 3-point line, reverses course, dribbles once and rises into his shot.
There’s the mechanical element: Of all the Spurs 3-point shooters — Manu Ginobili, Matt Bonner, Richard Jefferson, George Hill — Gary Neal’s mechanics are best suited for taking a shot of decent quality under a reasonable amount of defensive pressure. Neal rises up into his shot, has a high release point, and maintains his shooting motion whether drifting left, right, forward or back.
There’s the psychological element: Gary Neal is a rookie, an undrafted rookie. He made his way from an unknown summer league standout into a reliable rotation player, and even onto some Rookie of the Year ballots. Yet, despite his relative lack of notoriety, he managed to summon a steely confidence that many people lack. He was asked to extend the season, a season that, no matter how it ends, will conclude with a wave of emotion the size of which I have not endured since David Robinson retired.
There is, of course, the personal element: I was at 200 Fifth, a nightmarish bar in Brooklyn in which, from any given seat in the house, two dozens TVs are visible. I was sitting alone, with a single sip of ale swirling at the bottom of my pint glass, waiting patiently for the game to come to its excruciating end. Just moments before the bar had erupted as Ginobili’s two-pointer dropped through the net, but I did not budge: My eyes were on his feet, and I had no doubts as to how the rest of the game would play out.
A few minutes later, my downtrodden certainty had been shattered, and I stood at the center of the bar, yelling and high-fiving my fellow patrons, none of whom were Spurs fans but all of whom were humored by my sudden elation.
And then there is the narrative element: The story of Gary Neal’s last second shot has yet to be written. If the Spurs go on to win the series, which I still don’t believe they will, Neal’s shot may stand with the Memorial Day Miracle as one of the greatest ever made by a member of the franchise. If they win the title — a possibility I consider wildly unlikely, even if the Spurs were to win the series — it will. Full stop.
However, if they don’t do either, most people will forget this shot. It may make it’s way into an NBA promotional reel over the next couple of seasons, but in a few years general NBA fans will struggle to recall the details: Which game of the series was it? How many seconds were left? Was Robert Horry still on that team?
But, if you’re reading this, you most likely won’t be one of those people, and neither will I. Because, the truth is, no team — no iteration of a team — has meant more to me than the Tim Duncan-era Spurs. The Spurs won their first title the summer before my freshman year of high school. A few days after graduating from college, I pulled into my parents’ driveway in Austin, Texas, and later that evening the Spurs won their fourth title. Their championship window has coincided with the most formative years of my life. When the Spurs complete their playoff run this season, that window will be closed.
Eventually, most everyone will frame this in terms of what happens on Friday, or any games that may come after that. But for me, the moment is a story unto itself. Although playoff euphoria is often bogged down by the relentless teleology of titles, sometimes moments transcend that, and don’t rely on future success to validate their notoriety. For me, this is one of those moments. It extended not just a game, or a season, but my love affair with a team. And nothing that happens now will make me ungrateful for having been given that.