During a timeout in the second quarter of San Antonio’s 113-77 win over the Miami Heat in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich shouted to his players in the team huddle, “Feel confident, let `em fly, get your name in the paper.”
Danny Green and Gary Neal obviously listened, as they combined for 13 of the Spurs’ NBA-record 16 three-pointers. But Baltimore native Neal knows that Popovich had a lot more to say than what ABC captured on its telecast of the game.
“That’s what you guys hear,” Neal said, jokingly, to reporters. “But Coach Pop is great. He instills confidence in all of his players. He knows what buttons to push. He knows how to motivate guys and that’s because he takes a genuine interest in you.”
Neal couldn’t have predicted that Game 3 would be the night that got his “name in the paper” with a 24-point performance in which he outscored both LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, since his opportunities have been sparse for much of this season, as he dealt with plantar fasciitis and subsequent erratic shooting. His point total surpassed his combined scoring output from his previous five games and marked the first time since April 15 that he scored at least 20 points.
Popovich pulled Neal out of the rotation at times, which contributed to him getting career-lows in scoring (9.5 points), field goal percentage (41.2) and three-point shooting percentage (35.5). Neal will be a free agent this summer, so the timing for his struggles wasn’t ideal. But his performance against Miami certainly helped.
When asked about the low point of the season, Neal said, “I just think the injuries. Having high expectations and wanting to come in and contribute and just be a competitor and help the team win games and to step on the court and know you’re not 100 percent…Coach Pop made the ultimate decision. He sat me down, so that I could rest my foot. That rest helped. Being a competitor and making an impact, but knowing that the foot is kind of holding you back a little bit.”
Popovich praised Neal for being a “professional” and a “quality individual” after the game. Considering all that he has had to overcome for an opportunity to play in the NBA, Neal was well prepared for staying ready and maintaining confidence through some challenging stretches this season. He went undrafted out of Towson but cut his honeymoon short to take a chance on a summer league tryout with the Spurs after spending three years in Spain and Italy.
Neal added that he hasn’t been played with free agency in the back of his mind.
“Positive thinking moves mountains,” Neal said. “I hope that in a free agent year, you get judged off the 180 games instead of the 34 you played with plantar fasciitis. God has a plan and whatever it is, it is.”
Exploding for six three-pointers in the NBA Finals can help put behind any of those concerns, but Neal realizes that his job isn’t done.
“For me, you’ve got to stay grounded. Got to stay humble,” Neal said. “We’ve got two wins. We’re trying to get four. So I got to put that game behind me and try to perform similar or better.”
With Tony Parker nursing a hamstring injury suffered in the second half of the blowout win, Neal doesn’t expect his role to change too much.
“I’ll probably get the same amount of minutes, play the same way. Aggressive on offense – looking to score and looking for opportunities,” Neal said. “That’s kind of been the role and my job since I’m been a Spur. To have no fear and be aggressive and shoot the ball and attack and that’s a role that I’ve embraced in my three years here. I was able to put it all together on the highest stage and I’m thankful and grateful I was able to do that.”