Role reversals lead Spurs within two wins of title
SAN ANTONIO -- For long stretches of Game 3 -- as in, say, the entire 48 minutes -- the Spurs' basket looked as wide as a set of goalposts. The three-pointers spun end over end into their net one after the other like chip-shot field goals by Danny Green and Gary Neal.
Green and Neal were the kickers who lifted the Spurs to a preposterous 113-77 rout of the defending champions on Tuesday to give San Antonio a 2-1 lead in the NBA Finals. They were the stars of this upside-down night, and their holder was Tim Duncan. He teed up the ball and enabled them to do what they, for this one game, did best.
"We don't expect a performance like this from those kind of guys, but they were great," Duncan said. "They did it. They found their spots and knocked them out."
Duncan was referring to the shots they knocked down, but he may as well have been talking about LeBron James (15 points on 7-of-21 shooting) and the Heat, who were outscored 61-31 over the final 22 minutes. The Spurs made a Finals-record 16 threes in 32 attempts while holding all of the Heat stars to 16 points or fewer.
"I didn't recognize the team that was out there," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said.
No one looked like his usual self. While he was making seven of his nine threes for a game-high 27 points, Green didn't look like a second-round pick who had been cut and reclaimed three times by the Spurs. While he was going 6-of-10 from the three-point line for his 24 points, Neal didn't look like an undrafted refugee of Europe who had no reason to believe he would play in the NBA.
"I never had a chance at the NBA," Neal said in his checkered shirt and blue jeans, the outfit one wears when one is absolutely shocked to have been invited to the news-conference podium at the NBA Finals. "I never played summer league, never did a minicamp or anything."
Neal had played three years in Europe after two years of college at LaSalle and two more at Towson. He was surprised that summer of 2010 -- the summer of LeBron and "The Decision" -- when the Spurs said they wanted a closer look at him.
"I was able to play well enough to get invited to the summer league," he said. "The minicamp for summer league was the same time that I was getting married. I had to kind of smooth it over with my wife. She decided it would be a good thing if we went to Vegas instead, so I could make an NBA push."
When the Spurs turned it over four times in five possessions to waste all of their 10-point lead at the end of the second quarter, it was Neal who pulled up at the three-point line to beat the buzzer and send them into the half with a 50-44 advantage. When James engineered a 9-1 run toward the end of the third quarter to create another brief scare, it was Neal who splashed back-to-back threes to push the Spurs' lead back out to 84-63 in the opening minute of the fourth.
"Those guys stepping up on this stage in this game is huge for us," Duncan said. "It's an unbelievable story to see where they come from."
For all of Duncan's 16 years of championship contention, the Spurs have spaced the floor by surrounding him with perimeter scorers. Now 37, Duncan was once more first-team All-NBA this season by exploiting that space to put up big numbers. In this game, however, Duncan was the set-up guy. Tony Parker was limited to 27 minutes and six points by a worrisome hamstring injury that he hoped would take care of itself with rest before Game 4 on Thursday; his fellow future Hall of Famer Manu Ginobili, while far more aggressive off the bench than he had been during the Spurs' discouraging 19-point loss in Game 2, was needed for only seven points while relieving Parker of the playmaking burden.
Duncan's humble double-double of 12 points and 14 rebounds didn't account for the authority he expressed around both baskets. Duncan led a team defense that discouraged James from driving and crashing the glass -- Duncan and Kawhi Leonard together had chased down 25 rebounds entering the fourth quarter, which was one fewer than the entire Miami roster.
In the third quarter, Duncan got back defensively in time to block a breakaway layup by Mario Chalmers and then threw himself into the front row while saving the ball out to Green for a successful fast break of his own.
"I'm just trying to do whatever I can," Duncan said. "I don't feel like I have a great rhythm right now. I'm missing a lot of easy stuff. But the one thing I can do is go out there and try to make some hustle plays, try to get us some second possessions and just try to find a way to help the team however I can."
Like a role player.
So now Duncan finds himself two wins away from his fifth championship, and for this night he had Neal and Green to thank especially. Neal had been "up and down" in the playoffs, in Duncan's words, though the need for athleticism and shooting were now giving Neal the opportunity to surprise the Heat and himself.
Green is another story entirely. He is now the leading scorer of the NBA Finals with 56 points -- a half-dozen more than James, with whom Green played in Cleveland when he was a rookie who totaled 40 points in 20 games in 2009-10. He was the No. 46 pick after four years at North Carolina, and he arrived in the NBA with little of the self-belief that he has shown while making 12-of-14 threes over the last two games.
"That was the missing piece the last couple of years for him," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of Green's radiating confidence. "We actually cut him twice, and when we brought him back to camp this year it was the third time. Coach [Roy] Williams at North Carolina and I double-teamed him, talked to him about that sort of thing, and I think Coach Williams had a big impact on Danny's mental status. Believing that he belonged. Not getting down if things didn't go well, to continue to push and to work.
"He just talked to Danny about going after a job like he really wanted it. Not to be in float, but to go after it. Take no prisoners, so to speak. Act like somebody is 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."
James abandoned Cleveland after Green's rookie season there, and Green was abandoned -- waived -- by the Cavaliers. On Tuesday, it was as if they couldn't recognize one another after all these years. James played as if he didn't believe in himself, and his passivity was contagious throughout his team; Green played his newfound role in the way that kids grow up pretending to be superstars.
"Me and Danny both went through a lot of stuff together," Neal said. "We were guys that showed up two hours before practice started to get shots up and to prove to the coaching staff that we belong, and we're going to do whatever we need to do to get minutes. We kind of play the same position. We kind of have the same role. We really feed off each other, our positive energy."
Did the Spurs peak Tuesday? Will the shooting cool off inevitably, the basket appearing to shrink as the pressure tightens and Miami responds in Games 4 and 5 here? Or, true to the identity of a team that has taken in and redeemed lost souls, was this breakthrough game the bridge that will enable Duncan, Ginobili and Parker (his hamstring willing) to seize control?
"It's been a while since I shot the ball like that," Green said. "Tonight it was a totally different comfort level on the perimeter. They trusted me."
He wasn't going to take that trust for granted. He worked too hard to earn it. So hard, maybe, that not even the Heat will be able to take it away from him.