Tony Parker out with the flu, Gary Neal stepping in, no problem, not missing a beat. Instead of shaking the rotation, Gregg Popovich decided Gary Neal will continue to come off the bench, giving the starting role to Patrick Mills. However, it was Neal, with 27 points, who was the main man responsible for the San Antonio Spurs winning in Portland for the first time since 2008.
Depth was always going to be a problem for the Blazers this season. Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge and Damien Lillard combined for 82 points. Behind that? Only 27 more, and only 4 from the bench. That gives you entire stretches without someone who can create points for the lineup. When healthy, there’s no such problem for the San Antonio Spurs.
The Spurs struggled with Mills on the floor, playing against his former. Popovich just didn’t want Neal to feel to uncomfortable NBA coaches, even the unorthodox ones, like Pop, don’t like changing too much. If Neal is coming off the bench, an injury to a starter shouldn’t change that. Just promote a third string point guard and keep Neal coming off the bench, just giving him more minutes. Well, after winning 112-109, who can say he was wrong?
Neal finished with 27 points and 7 rebounds. Manu Ginobili was more of a point guard when the two were together on the floor, on a night in which Tim Duncan and most of the bigs on the Spurs struggled with a red hot LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum playing to that potential everyone talks about before each season. For once, those comparisons with Scottie Pippen did him justice.
But the win was about the Spurs’ depth. Ginobili, Duncan and Stephen Jackson made the final shots that close out the game while Batum missed a potential game tying three, but it was the ability of a backup point guard, who can probably start for quite a few teams in the NBA in both guard positions, that carried this team to victory, while Parker was out, Duncan also not at his best when it comes to his fitness (but finished with 22 points) and Manu Ginobili still not 100%, despite his 17 points.
Players like Gary Neal give Spurs the hope they can compete with the young run & gunners around the league. Offensively they can keep up with anyone in the NBA, but scoring isn’t the only factor. It has a lot do with the style of the game, and the styles of offense forced upon it. When it’s fast break upon fast break, there’s a good chance the Spurs will fall at a certain point. Like their loss to the Clippers last week, their only one of the season so far (6-1), when it became an alley oop contest the Spurs just couldn’t keep up with.