Afforded some extra minutes in the absence of guards Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs guard Gary Neal reminded us why his ability to generate and hit shots in flurries can be such a valuable asset in the Spurs 98-84 victory over the Orlando Magic.
Struggling through an assortment of injuries all season, Neal more closely resembled himself against the Magic by hitting five of his first seven shots and half of his eight three-pointers while on his way to 16 points in 31 minutes.
Gary Neal's spacing and shot creation were a welcome sight to a second unit that can go through extended offensive droughts without the play making abilities of Manu Ginobili. Ginobili, of course, is out 3-4 weeks while tending to a sore right hamstring.Starting with tonight's matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Spurs' bench has seven games to forge an identity and survive Ginobili's absence.
While the Spurs boast considerable depth, a strength they have relied on all season, it's also contingent on the play making abilities from precious few sources–namely those of Parker, Tim Duncan, and Ginobili.
Lacking significant roster building resources, the Spurs have done well to assemble a deep cast of intelligent, highly specialized role players on a tight budget. The caveat is these role players have limits. The biggest one being that, while they space and move the ball well, they still struggle to create their own shot or driving and passing lanes.
In Ginobili's absence the Spurs are relying more on the incremental gains made by rookie guard Nando De Colo, who flashes some of Ginobili's passing flair and feel for the game in a less athletic, not quite as dynamic package.
While De Colo has earned the majority of minutes backing up Tony Parker, he remains a rookie who can still be overwhelmed at times against high quality defenses as it was evident by his five turnovers in the Spurs loss to the Memphis Grizzlies.
In the wrong matchup De Colo can be stymied and with that is also whatever dribble penetration the Spurs second unit needs to be utilized effectively, which brings us back to the importance of Gary Neal.
Ideally Neal would operate primarily off the ball as a spot-up shooter and strictly secondary ball handler. As Tony Parker's primary backup for most of the season, this is a role Neal could stick to thanks to Ginobili's ability to assume play making responsibilities from the shooting guard position.
Of course the world is not ideal and injuries to Ginobili have redefined Neal's role, while calf and foot injuries to Neal have hampered his effectiveness.
"He hasn't been very forthcoming about [injuries]," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said a few weeks ago. "He's tried to play through it, which isn't the smartest thing to do. We're going to watch him closely since he won't watch himself."
True to Popovich's word, the Spurs have deactivated Neal for some games and he accumulated DNP-CD's in others. This was presumably to try and coax enough recovery in time for the playoffs.
Because for all Neal's faults, he is unique from the other Spurs role players in that he is a self-contained offensive weapon. While his efficiency is most effective when he can pick and choose his spots, Neal is the lone bench player outside of Ginobili who can fend for himself offensively.
When healthy, Neal's jumper is equally effective off the catch or dribble. Though not a dynamic ball handler or passer–he is almost always looking for his own shot–Neal is certainly more than just a spot up shooter, with a variety of floaters and pull-ups to use when defenders overplay his jumper and allow Neal a step.
His ability to not only space the floor, but to do so on the move, tilts defenses in a way that open up driving and passing lanes just as dribble penetration would. If he could just get healthy enough to regain his form.
"He's been working the last couple of weeks to get back in shape and get comfortable," Popovich said of Neal.
Neal's 31 minutes against the Magic marked his first 30-minute game since a December victory over the Boston Celtics.
"The thing about it is, when you play on a team like this where you go 10 or 11 deep and anybody can come in and contribute, I feel like it's about minutes," said Neal, who wasn't complaining about minutes but explaining the struggles of a shooter coming off injuries. "If you can find a way to get on the court and get minutes you can find a way to get a rhythm and get comfortable."