San Antonio Spurs 112, Portland Trail Blazers 109: Did you see what Gary Neal did?

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It took surviving two desperation three-pointers and a chaotic shootout between Nicholas Batum and Gary Neal, but the San Antonio Spurs finally earned a victory in Portland.

Down two, the Portland Trail Blazers found Nicolas Batum curling off a screen at the three-point line with less than 10 seconds remaining. The ball caromed off the rim, teasingly hovering over it for a few seconds, before falling harmlessly into the hands of Stephen Jackson.

In a fantastic finish featuring little defense and less plausibility, Neal led the Spurs in the fourth quarter with 15 of his career-high 27 points.

As a backup point guard, Neal has his share of flaws. He’s not a particularly adept playmaker, can show a shaky handle under pressure, and guarding the position is a hopeless endeavor.  His place in the Spurs rotation works, when it works, because head coach Gregg Popovich only asks Neal to play to his strengths.

“As a point guard my only two jobs are to not turn the ball over and hit shots,” Neal said before embarking on this current road trip.

Tonight Neal played the role to perfection, give or take a Damian Lillard bucket or eight.

While lacking creativity off the bounce, once Neal finds an opening he has an incredible array of shots in his bag of tricks. Between his assortment of runners, teardrops, pull-up jumpers, and one-legged pull-up jumpers, Neal perhaps has almost every Steve Nash shot in his utility belt without the handle or playmaking abilities attached.

But he can create space for his shot, and as the Trail Blazers learned, just the tiniest sliver of daylight is enough for a potential Neal dagger.

And as the Spurs connected on their first nine shot attempts of the fourth quarter, the Blazers sought fit to do something perhaps no NBA team has attempted in three years. They hedged and trapped Neal off screens.

It was in this moment that Neal made perhaps the most underrated play of the game, taking the double team and zipping a pass through two long defenders that eventually made its way to Tim Duncan for a basket and foul.

On the night Neal shot 11-16 from the field and a surprising seven rebounds. He wasn’t the only Spurs player with an efficient shooting night either.

The Spurs aim proved accurate when they weren’t busy shooting themselves in the foot. Their 57.1 percent shooting night was almost wasted by 21 turnovers.

Right now the beautiful offensive machine from last year isn’t firing on all cylinders. Passes are being carelessly flung around and into the arms of waiting defenders, or smart decisions are offset by misplaced passes, forcing shooters to reach for the ball instead of the usual quick catch and shoot opportunity.

Defensively, the Spurs continue to have trouble with the length and shooting ability of LaMarcus Aldridge. Portland repeatedly took advantage of the Spurs frontline’s inability to extend out to Aldridge and recover to the paint. While the Spurs do a remarkable job of keeping the ball out of the paint, the over rotations still leave shooter comfortably open for any offense patient enough to find them.

High marks go to Stephen Jackson, who experienced flashbacks to his Golden State Warriors days, defending Aldridge with the same gusto he guarded Nowitzki in his first round upset of the Mavericks years ago.

Jackson consistently moved Aldridge a step or two off his comfort zones; and while jumpers were hit, they were all mostly contested while driving lanes remained cutoff or unexplored.

He also contributed 13 points as one of three bench players who finished in double digits (along with Neal’s 27 points, and a rust-shaking 17 points from Manu Ginobili. In all, the Spurs bench outscored the Trail Blazers’ 63-4, overwhelming the Trail Blazers once they stopped handing them the ball.

  • junierizzle

    Great win. I always just chalk up a loss when they go to Portland. Granted it isnt the best Blazer team assembled but they still had a very good look to take the lead. Glad Manu shook off some rust. I think all these close games just add to the confidence of Leonard, Green and Neal.

  • I need more cowbell

    that was a ridiculously exciting game. Manu seemed a bit rusty and slow. Maybe its time for him to back off and let someone else carry the bench….?

  • http://twitter.com/slapdoghoops Jeffrey Thompson

    It’s shocking to look at how deep San Antonio is. There is certainly no need to worry after Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobli finally decide to hang up their high tops.

  • Dusty

    He’s rusty and slow because he was out over a week and half of training camp and missed the first few games of the season. Manu has always been a player that needs time to build his rhythm and explosiveness

  • assistman

    This team struggles to make the playoffs without TD, and probably fails in that quest. I like what Portland did headed into last summer’s deep draft. Batum and Mathew are comprable talent to what SA has on board, after that we have a definite advantage in depth, however it’s Aldridge and Lillard that make the future palatable to Blazers’ fans. Lillard was the #6 pick from the Nets for Gerald Wallace, and SA has no real way to trade for such a pick. Portland’s quest for bigman help got them Meyers Leonard who is 6 years away from showing decent service at a slightly above average ceiling. My point? Your rosy glasses are cloudier than you think. Enjoy these seasons while you can.

  • http://twitter.com/atx1985 Donald Carter

    In my dreams LaMarcus Aldridge becomes a Spur and takes over Duncan’s role.

  • ThatBigGuy

    What can I say about Neal? Pure shooters are severely underrated, yet we have one of the best.

    As far as Jack goes, he just grabbed his lunch pail and went to work on Aldridge. Talk about testicular fortitude. Can you imagine Richard Jefferson doing anything like that? I’ve been a Spurs fan my whole life, and have way too many “favorite players,” but every game, Jack climbs my list. What a beast.

  • Golai

    Completely agree about Jackson. He has an attitude on the court I wish I could bring to every facet of my life, almost. Few players have that type of impact without being franchise stars (Robinson, Ginobili, Duncan)

  • Golai

    I agree with everything you said except about Leonard. He will be a serviceable big man by his third season. The guy works too hard and is too athletic to take 6 seasons, imo.

    100% agree with enjoying these seasons too. It’s been almost too stressful for me the last 3 seasons, each year thinking Duncan may finally have that season where his production dips considerably. His perseverance is astonishing and it will never be the same once he and Manu retire.

  • Graham

    Why do people complain about our impending demise? We are still in the midst of one of the greatest runs in pro sports, not to mention NBA history. We always finish north of 50 wins and more often than not have a decent playoff run in us. Yeah eventually it will end when Duncan and Manu retire, but that day’s not here yet and they are still kicking tail out there. Worry about rebuilding when they hang em up finally. We’ll deal with that day when it comes. Till then let’s worry about getting Duncan that 5th ring.

  • Tyler
  • leben

    Ironic that a few days after “The Spurs bench slow out of the gate” was posted, the Spurs explode for 63 bench points.

  • http://48minutesofhell.com Andrew A. McNeill

    Just trying to light a fire under them is all.

  • Francesco

    I hope the tv station gets rid of Sean Elliott. He’s embarrassing to listen to, and his partisan stance has little to do with how the franchise like to carry itself.