SAN ANTONIO – Gary Neal was plucked from obscurity when the San Antonio Spurs signed the journeyman shooter three years ago, interrupting his honeymoon to offer a tryout with the other longshots in the NBA’s summer league.
He’s still not done surprising.
Shaking off a humiliating blowout for the biggest game in San Antonio since 2007 – blame that on the gridlock that made Tim Duncan and Tony Parker late to the AT&T Center – the Spurs kept giving LeBron James fits in the NBA Finals and ran away to a 2-1 series lead against the Miami Heat with a 113-77 victory Tuesday night.
The unlikely stars were Neal, who scored a career postseason high 24 points, and former North Carolina standout Danny Green, who scored 27.
They combined for 13 of the Spurs’ 16 3-pointers, a playoffs franchise record in a win that was a milestone for San Antonio’s Big Three.
It was playoffs win No. 100 for the Spurs’ trio of Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili.
The biggest concern for the Spurs is the health of Parker. His MRI on Wednesday revealed a slightly strained hamstring, leaving his availability for Game 4 of the NBA Finals very much up in the air.
Parker was injured early in the second half of Game 3 against Miami on Tuesday night. He tried to play through it, but left the game early in the fourth quarter with the Spurs pulling away.
“Hopefully, it’s nothing big and it’s just cramping or got tight on me,” Parker said. “I don’t know. It was just a weird feeling.”
But they never would’ve cruised to this blowout without Green and Neal.
“It’s an unbelievable story,” said Duncan, who scored 12 points and had 14 rebounds. “To see where they come from. Gary came, played overseas and gets picked up from there. And Danny is with us a couple of times, gets cuts, sticks with it, and Pop stayed on him hard. He has developed into a great one for us.”
Game 4 is tonight in San Antonio.
Neal was 9-of-17 from the field and 6-of-10 from behind the arc.
Green, whose shooting has been the offensive story for the Spurs so far in the Finals, was 9 of 15 from the floor and hit 7 of 9 3-pointers.
“Feel confident, let ‘em fly, get your name in the paper,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich barked during a timeout in the second quarter, when Game 3 was still in doubt.
Neal paced San Antonio with the bench offense it lacked in Game 2, when the four-time champion Duncan sputtered through the worst Finals game of his career.
Neal’s scoring average slightly dipped to a career-low 9.5 points this season, and Popovich moved him in and out of the rotation as his shooting touch became erratic.
Even Spurs owner Peter Holt acknowledged that he was surprised to see the Popovich play Neal for 21 minutes in the Finals opener last week.
“We had talked about it, but I wasn’t sure he was going to do it,” Holt said.
Neal couldn’t have rediscovered his shooting touch at a better time: Since the NBA Finals went to a 2-3-2 format, the winner of Game 3 is 12-1 when the series began as a split.
“It’s a dream come true,” Neal said. “Me and Danny both went through a lot of stuff together. We were guys that showed up two hours before practice starts to get shots up and to prove to coaching staff the we belong, that we’re going to do whatever we need to do to get minutes.”
Holt could be overheard shouting “Nobody heard of these guys three years ago!” over the cheers of the exiting crowd, which had watched the Spurs play host to their first Finals game since the franchise won its last championship six years ago.
Holt never had heard of Neal, either, when general manager R.C. Buford told him about the 6-foot-4 shooting guard out of Towson.
“Nobody had honed in on him,” Holt said.
With the Spurs’ championship core aging, Holt didn’t want to radically change the roster and start from scratch.
“Starting two-three years ago, knowing that eventually, obviously there were going to be some days Tim wasn’t going to play. Manu is not going to play. And we didn’t want to have to go through the transition and crash and try to rebuild through the draft,” Holt said. “It has been our goal from the beginning.”