By Jeff McDonald
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Seven months before the Spurs asked Gary Neal to save their season, they asked him to win a preseason game.
Befitting the laissez-faire nature of exhibition basketball, Manu Ginobili — and not Gregg Popovich — drew up the game-winning play for Neal that night in Mexico City, freeing the undrafted, unknown rookie to sink the buzzer-beating 3-pointer that toppled the Los Angeles Clippers.
“That’s where he began earning our trust,” Ginobili said.
That faith paid dividends again Wednesday night, when a much more meaningful Neal buzzer-beater — this time dialed up by Popovich — sent Game 5 against Memphis into overtime, where the Spurs claimed a 110-103 victory that felt like a pardon from the governor.
“You really don’t think about the magnitude of the situation,” Neal said. “You just think about trying to get the best shot you can get.”
Gifted new life by Neal’s miracle fling, the Spurs now aim to live it to the fullest.
Still down 3-2 in the series, the Spurs face another do-or-? die situation tonight in Game 6 at the FedEx Forum, where Memphis won Games 3 and 4. For the first time, they have a chance to push the upstart Grizzlies to the edge of elimination as well.
“I don’t know if we put a doubt in their mind,” Parker said. “But we won (Game 5) and now we get another shot to try and win on the road.”
Given the Grizzlies’ poise so far, it would be foolhardy to expect them to fold now. For much of the series, Memphis has not acted like a No. 8 seed devoid of much postseason experience.
It was not until overtime Wednesday that coach Lionel Hollins thought his team played down to its age.
“We had too many guys that were hurt and not mature enough at this stage to just let it go,” Hollins said.
The Spurs are not expecting their Game 5 magic to break the Grizzlies, who remain one win away from becoming just the second eighth seed to win a best-of-7 series.
Still, there is little question Neal’s shot has shifted the pressure in the series. For the first time, the Grizzlies find themselves in a game that feels like a must-win.
Lose tonight, and suddenly Memphis must come back to San Antonio for a Game 7, to confront the possibility of squandering an historic opportunity in a series they had all but won.
If that happens, those four championship banners hanging overhead at the ATT Center will begin to look more like guillotine blades.
“We don’t want to give this team too many chances,” Memphis’ Mike Conley said.
The Grizzlies’ worst fear is, perhaps, they have already given the Spurs a chance too many.
After being dominated for much of the series by Conley, Memphis’ 23-year-old point guard, Parker came to life in Game 5, posting 24 points and nine assists and — most importantly — one turnover.
Ginobili appears to be growing more at ease with the protective brace strapped to his sprained right elbow, as demonstrated by his 33-point night in Game 5 that included a memorable trick shot of his own.
The Spurs’ role players are beginning to become involved, with George Hill supplying 12 points, Neal a big shot and rookie center Tiago Splitter productive minutes off the bench Wednesday.
At last, the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed is beginning to look like a one seed.
The Spurs’ worst fear is that, perhaps, all of the above happened too late.
“Memphis put themselves in a great position to end this series, and we’re fighting to stay alive,” Spurs forward Tim Duncan said. “We’re not going to give up until that horn goes off in the end.”
Just before the fourth-quarter horn went off in Game 5, forward Matt Bonner glanced at the ATT Center scoreboard overhead. The Spurs were behind by three points, 1.7 seconds from the end of the season.
Where others saw desperation, Bonner saw hope.
“We still had time,” Bonner said. “And if you have time, you have a chance.”
Moments later, Neal’s 3-pointer bought the Spurs more time, in the game and then the season. Back in Memphis, they now feel like they have a chance.
ONE DOWN, TWO TO GO
The Spurs are one-third of the way to becoming the ninth team in NBA history to recover from a 3-1 deficit to win a playoff series. The others are:
2006 Suns: First round over Lakers, but lost in Western finals to Mavericks
2003 Pistons: First round over Magic, but lost in Eastern finals to Nets
1997 Heat: Eastern semis over Knicks, but lost in Eastern finals to Bulls
1995 Rockets: Western semis over Suns en route to NBA title
1981 Celtics: Eastern finals over 76ers en route to title
1979 Bullets: Eastern finals over Spurs, but lost to SuperSonics in Finals
1970 Lakers: Western finals over Suns, but lost to Knicks in Finals
1968 Celtics: Eastern finals over 76ers en route to title
Note: Rockets and 1968 Celtics had to win Games 5 and 7 on the road.
Source: Express-News research