By Jeff McDonald
The Spurs exited a timeout huddle late in the fourth quarter Wednesday, behind by three points and 1.7 seconds away from an early vacation, facing a thought that could have been unsettling if they let it be.
The game, the series, and their season had been placed in the hands of an undrafted rookie.
Gary Neal drained a tough 3-pointer from the top of the arc to force overtime, where Tony Parker took over to lift the Spurs to a 110-103 victory in Game 5 that sent their first-round round series with Memphis back to the banks of the Mississippi.
“I once hit a buzzer-beater to win a state championship in high school,” Neal said. “This feels a little bigger.”
The win brought the Spurs within 3-2 en route to Memphis for Game 6 on Friday, not enough to make them feel free and easy, but enough to make the series interesting again.
The Spurs needed a ceaseless string of miracles to get it.
Before Neal hit his new most-memorable buzzer-beater, Manu Ginobili — who finished with 33 points — nearly re-enacted Sean Elliott’s Memorial Day Miracle in the right corner. Except Ginobili’s toe was on the 3-point line, and the shot left the Spurs down by one.
After Neal sent the game to overtime came the biggest miracle of all — Parker found his mothballed jump shot, knocking down three to start the extra frame and point the Spurs toward victory. Parker finished with 24 points and nine assists, his best performance in what has been a frustrating series for him.
“When you are facing elimination,” Ginobili said, “you always seem to get something out of nowhere.”
In this case, the season’s biggest shot was by a player who came out of nowhere.
After TV replay ruled Ginobili’s circus shot a 2-pointer, erasing the three that would have tied the game, Zach Randolph made a pair of free throws to put the Grizzlies up by three.
Memphis, an eighth seed, was a short commercial break from pulling off one of the NBA’s greatest first-round upsets.
“We were very close to being on vacation time,” Ginobili said.
Then, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich took his dry-erase board and assembled a set of Xs and Os. The play was designed for a 26-year-old rookie, passed over by every other NBA team, who had made his bones in the hardscrabble pro leagues of Italy, Turkey and Spain.
A rookie who had played just 10 minutes to that point, and had made just one field goal.
The decision to place the season in Neal’s hands did not faze Ginobili, so long as he forgot the first time he’d ever laid eyes on the rookie.
“I’m not lying,” Ginobili said, recalling an open gym in September. “I saw him miss the first 20 shots he took.”
Still, Ginobili believed Wednesday. Maybe because he had no choice. And maybe because he had once been like Neal.
“Once, I was almost an undrafted rookie, too,” said Ginobili, the 57th pick in the 1999 draft.
Not everyone in the ATT Center was as confident. Tim Duncan, who set the pick to free Neal, spent the entire 1.7 seconds screaming at him.
“He’s got 1.7, and he takes a dribble,” Duncan said. “I’m like, shoot the ball.”
Neal, it turns out, knew exactly what he was doing.
“I knew I had time,” he said. “I was looking for my shot. That was my shot.”
Parker described the feeling of seeing Neal’s shot rip through the net this way: “Like a new life.”
And so the game went to OT, and Parker took over, and the Spurs began getting stops — the biggest of which coming as they forced Marc Gasol into an airball as the shot-clock sounded with 29.2 seconds left.
Still, it was not the kind of victory that left the Spurs feeling as if they had turned the series.
“We got lucky,” Ginobili said. “That’s the truth.”
Facing elimination, the Spurs needed every bit of luck in their playbook to pull out an overtime win at home. They harbor no illusions that pulling off a sequel in Game 6 on the road will be easy.
But, ultimately, the Spurs got what they came for on Wednesday. A new day. A new life.
Fittingly, it was Neal — a player whose entire season has felt like new life — who gave it to them.