When he looks around and sees a trio of future Hall of Famers born on foreign soil, a rangy small forward whose father was murdered five years ago, and a collection of players that have been cut, dumped and discarded for various reasons, Danny Green doesn’t believe that his journey to NBA Finals is more unique than any other member of the San Antonio Spurs.
“I feel like everybody on this team has a story,” Green said.
But after the Spurs walloped the Miami Heat, 113-77, on Tuesday at AT&T Center, the well-known and oft-repeated tales of Tim Duncan’s path from the Virgin Islands to four NBA championships; Tony Parker’s jaunt from France to being the first European Finals MVP; and Manu Ginobili’s rise from Argentina to all-star and Olympic gold medalist were pushed to side.
Instead, the Spurs’ all-star trio had to take a backseat to two journeymen – one from Long Island, N.Y., and the other from Baltimore – who found a home in San Antonio after overcoming years of disappointment.
Green and Gary Neal know what it feels like spend time in Europe and the NBA Developmental League and now both have also had the experience of burying three-pointer after three-pointer and leading the Spurs to a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Green and Neal combined to make 13 of the Spurs’ NBA-record 16 three-pointers on a night that neither will ever forget – especially if the Spurs can get two more wins and claim a fifth title.
“Those guys stepping up on this stage this game was huge for us,” Duncan said. “We don’t expect a performance like this from those kind of guys, but they were great. They did it. They found their spots and knocked them out.”
After helping North Carolina win a national championship in 2009, Green’s career began as a second-round pick with the Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron James still refers to Green as his “rook,” since Green served as his backup during an unremarkable first season.
Over the next two seasons, Green had to play for the Erie BayHawks, Reno Bighorns and Austin Toros in the D-League, got cut twice by the Spurs and even spent some time in Slovenia. Green latched on with the Spurs two years ago and has become a reliable starting shooting guard with his ability to knock down three-pointers and play defense.
Green has been the Spurs’ best threat from long distance against Miami, converting 16 of his 24 attempts (66.7 percent) in the first three games. In Game 3, Green shot 7 of 9 from three-point range and even outscored James, 27-15. San Antonio’s Big Three only accounted for 25 points.
“Never thought in a million years that would happen,” Green said. “It’s been a while since I shot the ball like that. A couple of games in the season I shot it pretty well, but it was a totally different feeling, a comfort level on the perimeter.”
Neal was in a similar rhythm as he made 6 of 10 three-pointers and scored a playoff career-high 24 points. Neal didn’t just hit shots; he consistently hit the shots that stymied Heat runs or turned up the pressure.
After Miami staged a 12-1 run to tie the game at 44 late in the second quarter, Parker made a three-pointer then Neal knocked down another three-pointer just before time expired to send the Spurs into the locker room with a more comfortable lead.
James finally showed up late in the third quarter to score eight points and bring the Heat within 15. But Neal opened the final period with two heat-check three-pointers, including a deep pull-up over Chris Andersen, to put the game out of reach.
“It’s a dream come true,” Neal said. “Me and Danny both went through a lot of stuff together. We were guys that showed up two hours before practice started to get shots up and prove to the coaching staff that we belong, and we’re going to do whatever we need to do to get minutes.”
The former standout at Aberdeen and Calvert Hall in Towson, Neal took an unusual route to the NBA. He started at LaSalle, sat out a year after being dismissed from the team because of a rape allegation (he was later acquitted), and then showed up at Towson, where he finished his career and went undrafted in 2007.
Neal played in Turkey, Spain and Italy before the Spurs finally took a chance on him, but he wasn’t necessarily in a rush to leave Europe.
“Honestly, I was comfortable with my financial situation in Italy,” Neal said. “With me getting married and wanting to start a family, I kind of wanted to be in the States…So when the opportunity came knocking, I said, you know, ‘I’ll try.’ ”
Neal was 26 when he made his NBA debut after signing a three-year deal with the Spurs. This year has been somewhat of struggle, but Neal remained patient for his chance as a trusted reserve.
“As a professional, it’s your job to stay ready,” Neal said. “I’m just thankful that I was able to stay mentally and physically ready for this opportunity that I could take advantage of it.”
Over the past 16 years since Duncan arrived, Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford have always tried to be a few steps ahead of the rest of the league to keep their championship window going.
At first, the Spurs mined international grounds and found Parker and Ginobili. The rest of the NBA followed suit and now the Spurs have focused on taking what others have either ignored or tossed aside and tried to turn them into quality, serviceable contributors.
“The Spurs continue to develop players, no matter what kind of team we have together,” Duncan said. “They always do a great job of that and it’s showing. It’s showing in guys like Danny and Cory Joseph and obviously, Gary. In a situation like this, where we can get a game where these guys really pull out a game for us here in the Finals, that says a tremendous amount.”