SAN ANTONIO — The King has been reduced to a pawn, so we will spare you another column devoted entirely to the troubles and travails of LeBron James. You can find that elsewhere. All you need to know about the king (lower case is intentional) after the Miami Heat’s 36-point blowout loss in Game 3 of the NBA Finals was that he put the blame squarely on his own shoulders and said “I’m not doing my part.”
The eunuching of James is a great story that has developed over the first three games of the NBA Finals, but there are great stories on the other side of the ledger, too.
Like the player whose life was in the hands of a jury after he was accused of rape when he was playing at La Salle. His name is Gary Neal, and his 24 points off the bench were eight more than anyone on the Heat. Did you ever hear the story about his honeymoon in Vegas and how he couldn’t even remember where he stayed? You will in this column.
And then there is the story of the player who broke into the NBA as LeBron James’ teammate, only to be cut by the Cavaliers and then twice more by the Spurs before San Antonio took a third chance on him and found a shooter who was capable of delivering what Robert Horry, Brent Barry, Stephen Jackson and Steve Kerr did for past Spurs teams. His name is Danny Green, and his story is as interesting as any player in the 2013 NBA Finals.
Green was actually playing in Slovenia a year and a half ago, when the NBA was shut down by the lockout.
Neal made stops in Turkey, Italy and Spain before making it to the NBA.
Yes, even the American players on the NBA’s most international roster have worldwide resumes that they bring to the mix.
Green shot 7-for-9 from 3-point range and scored a team-high 27 points. Neal was 6-for-10 from beyond the arc – including a shot that beat the halftime buzzer and allowed the Spurs to take a six-point lead into the locker room.
After that, it was nothing short of a beatdown in the third and fourth quarters as San Antonio held Miami to 33 points and allowed everyone who kept watching to witness the enjoyment of seeing six minutes of Tracy McGrady playing against Rashard Lewis. Remember when those guys were signing $100 million contracts? It wasn’t all that long ago, but if this series is teaching us one thing, it is that what happened a short time ago bears little relevance to what happened most recently.
After the drama of Game 1’s virtuoso 23.99 second possession by Tony Parker, we have now seen each team wipe the floor with the other. The series will turn one way or the other two nights from now, and if the Spurs can come away with a Game 4 victory, they will be one win away from avoiding a trip back to Miami, where a certain colleague insists it is ultimately headed.
Myself? I’m not so sure.
If James can continue to be shut down the way the Spurs are shutting him down, this thing is going to be over Sunday. Do I think that’s going to happen? Well, my pick was Spurs in 7, and I therefore am married to my pick. But the thing that’s pushing me to think otherwise is the same thing that led me to pick against the Heat – the fact that the Spurs are too smart, too wily, and have too many weapons for the Heat to beat them four times.
“We’ll figure it out. We always figure it out,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “But they played with more force and with more focus.”
Spolestra added that the Heat are “kidding ourselves” if they think the problem is offense rather than defense.
As we all know, defense is what makes Miami’s offense hum on all cylinders. Defense wreaks havoc, defense creates turnovers, defense leads to easy transition buckets. But when the Heat are playing in the halfcourt against the best halfcourt-executing team in the NBA, it’s a whole different ballgame.
And in this ballgame, Game 3, the best of those weapons were two guys who most of the world know little or nothing about — Neal and Green.
Let’s begin with Neal, and where he was back in 2003 when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were entering the league as rookies. Neal was playing for La Salle at the time, looking like one of the best players the Big 5 would ever produce, when a student manager visiting from the University of New Haven accused Neal and a teammate of raping her after an alcohol-fueled party.
The case went to a trial that lasted nine days, and Neal’s future was in the hands of a jury that ultimately declared him innocent. He finished his college career at Towson State in Maryland, close to where he grew up, and his father counseled him to earn his teaching certificate after his playing career ended.
But Neal had an urge to keep trying, and he went overseas to grow his game, first in Turkey, then Italy, then Spain, where he caught they eyes of the Spurs’ European scouts.
He was given an invite to a 25-player mini-camp in San Antonio in June 2010, and 23 of those players were cut before the Spurs assembled their summer league team for Las Vegas.
Neal was not among the 23 cuts, but there was a conflict. He had just gotten married, and the couple had plans to spend a week at the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas.
“I had to just kind of smooth it over with my wife. She decided it was a good thing if we went to Vegas instead, so that I could make an NBA push,” Neal said. “It was totally a business trip. Totally.”
The 28-year-old performed so well in Vegas – general manager R.C. Buford recalled him hitting seven 3-pointers in a half in one of the Spurs’ final games – that the team gave him a three-year deal that is just about to end with Neal becoming a restricted free agent.
That gamble he took in Vegas? It could pay off handsomely this summer. If you had a choice between Neal, J.J. Redick, J.R, Smith or O.J. Mayo, who would bring the most value?
After what happened Tuesday night, it’d be tough to argue that Neal doesn’t offer the most value, pound for pound and bang for the buck.
But as well as Neal played, it was Green who was even better after a Game 2 performance in which he was the only San Antonio player who could not have the finger of blame pointed at him, shooting 6-for-6 overall and 5-for-5 on 3-pointers.
Green has 16 made 3-pointers in this series. The Heat have 26 – and nine of those have come from Mike Miller, who was in mothballs a month ago.
The interesting thing about Green is the road he took to make it to this level. He signed as a rookie with Cleveland during James’ last season there and lasted less than three weeks in training camp before the Cavs cut him despite using the 46th pick of the draft to select him out of North Carolina, where he was the only player in Tar Heels history to have 1,000 points (1,368), 500 rebounds (590), 200 assists (256), 100 blocks (155) and 100 steals (160).
The Spurs picked him up but cut him six days later, then cut him again before giving him his third chance. In between, both Popovich and UNC coach Roy Williams had a heart-to-heart with him.
“I think coach Williams had a big impact on Danny’s mental status. Believing that he belonged. Not getting down on things that didn’t go well, to continue to push and to work,” Popovich said. “And to Danny’s credit he’s done that.
“(Williams) talked to Danny about being confident and going after a job like he really wanted it. Not to be in float, but to really go after it. Take no prisoners, so to speak. Act like somebody was trying to take something away from you, and really be intense, really compete, and at the same time, if you miss some shots or something doesn’t go well, don’t think it’s the end of your chances. Just keep on competing.”
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That is what Green did, and he found himself on the official NBA interview podium for the first time.
Green said he had watched hundreds of post-game press conferences on NBA TV over the years. Never in his wildest dreams did he expect to be the one behind the microphone being peppered with questions.
Not only that, but he outscored James 27-15, and his team is riding a crest of momentum that may or may not carry over into Game 4.