Spurs’ gunners vow to keep firing

By Jeff McDonald

In the game’s most pivotal moment, the score tied in overtime and 39 seconds to go, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich drew up a play to free guard Gary Neal for a 3-pointer.

This would not have been a surprise last season, when Neal emerged from nowhere to become one of the NBA’s brightest shooting stars.

Wednesday in Orlando, with Neal having clanged 16 of his past 18 threes and all four attempts on this night, the scribbles on Popovich’s grease board came with a side shot of blind faith.

“They’re your shooters,” Popovich said. “You’ve got to stick with them.”

Freed both by Popovich’s X’s and O’s and the confidence his coach has in him, Neal buried the jumper, giving the Spurs a three-point lead en route to a gut-check 85-83 victory over the Magic.

In a season that started with an appendectomy, and also included a nasty run-in between a medicine cabinet and the top of his head, Wednesday’s late swish gave Neal hope that perhaps his luck has begun to turn.

“As long as I continue to take open shots, I’m sure the numbers will come back my way,” Neal said. “We’ve still got, what, 51 more games?”

When it comes to Neal and Matt Bonner — two of the NBA’s most dead-eyed shooters a season ago — the Spurs trust the numbers will eventually stop telling them lies.

Even after going 2 for 17 from long range in Orlando, the Spurs rank fifth in the league in 3-point accuracy (38.3 percent) heading into tonight’s home game against Sacramento. Surprisingly, that percentage is being dragged down by two of the team’s best 3-point shooters.

After leading the NBA last season at 45.7 percent, Bonner has started 17 of 47 (36.2 percent) from long range this season. Neal set Spurs rookie records for 3-pointers made (129) and accuracy (41.9 percent) last season, but has made just 28.6 percent (10 of 35) as a sophomore.

For both players, the game has become an exercise in forgetfulness.

“You’ve got to take the shot, regardless of what your prior history in that game is,” said Bonner, a career 41.2-percent 3-point shooter.

For a player whose usefulness is often measured in stark terms of black and white — did the ball go in or didn’t it? — shrugging off failure can be easier said than done.

“I definitely struggled with it earlier in my career,” Bonner said.

He seemed to again in Orlando. After Bonner missed his third 3-pointer, a wide-open look midway through the fourth quarter, he barked at himself in frustration.

Adding to the insult, moments later Ryan Anderson hit a 3-pointer in Bonner’s face to bring the Magic within two points.

In slumps like these, it helps to have a support network, and both Bonner and Neal have fans in high places. In addition to Popovich, Spurs captain Tim Duncan and point guard Tony Parker expressed confidence in the team’s two wayward gunners.

“We’ve got some of the best shooters in the league, and we know it,” Duncan said. “If they start taking bad shots, contested shots, then we have something to complain about.”

Said Parker: “Even if they miss 15 in a row, I’m still going to pass the ball to Matt Bonner or Gary Neal if they’re open.”

When Neal buried the go-ahead 3-pointer against the Magic, salvaging a 1-for-5 night, nobody understood his relief more than Bonner.

The sharpshooting big man doesn’t think there is anything mechanically flawed with his own shot.

“They’re all in and out,” Bonner said.

Still, Bonner admits it would be nice to have a breakthrough moment like the one Neal enjoyed Wednesday. Subtract a 17-point night he posted in a win over Dallas on Jan. 5, when he made 5 of 9 from distance, and Bonner is 12 of 38 from beyond the arc.

And yet, the chances will keep coming. Like Neal before him, Bonner vows to keep shooting.

“That’s your role on the team,” Bonner said. “Everybody on the team expects you to take that shot. If you don’t, it screws everything else up.”


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