By Jeff McDonald
Sixteen months ago, Danny Green was back home in North Babylon, N.Y., in the midst of every 20-something’s worst nightmare.
He was living at his parent’s house, looking for work.
The Spurs had just become the second team to waive him in one season. Green was starting to wonder if this NBA thing would ever work out for him.
“I was at a point where I didn’t know if I was going to get back in the league,” Green said. “Sometimes, I think about where I was just a year ago, and how different it is for me now.”
Flash forward to tonight at the ATT Center, where Green will be starting at shooting guard for the Spurs in the Western Conference finals against Oklahoma City.
It is a series sure to be top-heavy with star power: the Spurs’ championship-tested threesome of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili on one side, the Thunder’s young and hungry trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden on the other.
Yet if history holds, a role player like Green could be the one to turn the series one way or the other.
“We expect a lot of different players to change a playoff series,” Duncan said. “It’s going to come down not only to how the main guys play, but also how the role players play.”
At the end of a series doubled up on Big Threes, a trip to the NBA Finals could come down to contributions from players best described as “The Other Guys.”
Oklahoma City’s Big Three was the highest-scoring triumvirate in the NBA during the regular season, accounting for 68.4 of the Thunder’s 103.1 points per game. Durant led the NBA for the third consecutive season by averaging 28.
The Thunder’s fourth-leading scorer was forward Serge Ibaka, who averaged 9.1 points. No other Oklahoma City player averaged more than 5.5.
“We’re as good an offensive team as they are, no question,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “We have good players. We wouldn’t be in this position if we weren’t a good team also.”
The Spurs’ Big Three combined for less than half the team’s offense in the regular season, accounting for 46.8 of the Spurs’ 103.7 points per game. That leaves ample scoring space for The Other Guys.
Among players who made at least 20 appearances for the Spurs, Gary Neal is King of the Other Guys at 9.9 points per game. Seven others averaged at least 6.6.
The Spurs can probably live with Durant, Westbrook and Harden all hitting their season averages in the series. They probably can’t survive if Derek Fisher (playoff average: six points), Thabo Sefolosha (3.9), or Daequan Cook (2.7) gets hot, too.
Meanwhile, the Spurs remain confident they can continue to spin scoreboards if one of their Big Three is contained. The Spurs’ bench produced an NBA-best 41.9 points per game during the regular season, and that number has dipped only slightly during the playoffs.
“We have guys that can come off the bench that can score, play good defense and do a lot of little things we need them to do,” Green said. “Hopefully, our bench can outmatch their bench and give us a lift.”
Eight games into his playoff run, Green has been doing much of the non-Big Three heavy lifting for the Spurs.
He is averaging 10.4 points, most of any player outside the Spurs’ highly touted trio, and is connecting at 45.7 percent from 3-point range.
It has been quite a playoff party for a player who, as recently as January 2011 was out of the league and looking into jobs in Italy.
“Just playing on the floor gets you more comfortable,” Green said. “I compare it to driving. The more minutes on the road, the more comfortable you are behind the wheel.”
Make no mistake. If the Spurs are to reach their fifth NBA Finals, it will be stars Duncan, Parker and Ginobili who drive them there.
But Green, and other guys like him, will be more than just along for the ride.
“We’re going to ask a lot of different people to play a lot of different roles,” Duncan said. “Those people who step up are going to make the difference whether we win or lose.”
A look at key playoff statistics for the top non-Big Three players for the Spurs and Thunder:
Danny Green, G: 10.4 points, 45.7 percent on 3-pointers
Kawhi Leonard, F: 8.5 points, 4.9 rebounds, 1.5 steals
Gary Neal, G: 8.3 points, 50 percent on 3-pointers
Tiago Splitter, C: 7.6 points, 3.6? rebounds
Serge Ibaka, F: 9.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 3.6 blocks
Derek Fisher, G: 6.0 points, 53.3 percent on 3-pointers
Thabo Sefolosha, G: 3.9 points, 38.9 percent on 3-pointers
SPURS VS. THUNDER
Western Conference finals (best-of-7)
Game 1: Sunday – Spurs vs. Thunder, 7:30 p.m. TNT
Game 2: Tuesday – Spurs vs. Thunder, 8:00 p.m. TNT
Game 3: Thursday – Spurs @ Thunder, 8:00 p.m. TNT
Game 4: Saturday – Spurs @ Thunder, 7:30 p.m. TNT
*Game 5: Monday June 4 – Spurs vs. Thunder, 8:00 p.m. TNT
*Game 6: Wednesday June 6 – Spurs @ Thunder, 8:00 p.m. TNT
*Game 7: Friday June 8 – Spurs vs. Thunder, 8:00 p.m. TNT
– All times Central