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