Gary Neal’s first NBA playoff game took his breath away.
“After the first two or three times I ran up and down the court, I was out of breath from all the adrenaline,” recalled Neal, 29, the Charlotte Bobcats’ reserve shooting guard.
Neal is a relative rarity on this Bobcats roster – a true veteran of playoff basketball. He’s played in 41 postseason games, most on the squad, thanks to deep runs by his former team, the San Antonio Spurs.
Now he’s a member of a young Bobcats team that will open its best-of-7 Eastern Conference playoff series Sunday at Miami. To say there’s a mismatch between the Bobcats and Heat in experience is an understatement. The 13 players available to coach Steve Clifford have a combined 127 playoff games and 15 starts. Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra’s players have a combined 1,069 playoff games and 727 starts.
Neal was acquired in a trade in February from the Milwaukee Bucks to improve the Bobcats’ outside shooting and spacing. As an added bonus, he is now a resource on the nuances of playoff basketball.
Neal did his best Thursday to describe how different this will be for the seven Bobcats who have never played in the postseason.
“It’s so different, first off, just because it’s the best 16 teams in the league,” Neal said. “Beyond that, the intensity is so different. Every possession, every shot, every turnover goes to another level.”
Neal started talking about this shortly after he joined the Bobcats for the playoff push. He mentioned after one sloppy game that mistakes that might be acceptable in Game 57 of the regular season will get you beaten in Game 7 of a playoff series.
That’s any playoff series, much less one against defending NBA champion Miami.
Part of what amplifies this is the fact you play the same team up to seven times in a row. And since the Heat is a divisional foe, the Bobcats have already faced Miami four times this season.
The coaches arm the players with scouting reports and DVDs of the opposition. As Clifford said Wednesday night, preparation for the playoffs will be much more mental than physical between now and Sunday’s 3:30 p.m. tip-off.
Know your Miami counterpart, because he’s sure to know you.
“That’s the crazy thing – they’re watching everything you’ve done and you’re watching everything they’ve done. They know your plays, they know your players, they know all your tendencies,” Neal said.
“They’ll know what you do when you go right and what you do when you go left. This is not like the regular season where some team is on the second game of a back-to-back and hasn’t really had a chance to study up.
“The mental aspect is now so important.”
Center Al Jefferson has asked Neal to share advice with the Bobcats. Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist have never played a playoff game. Three more newcomers are key reserves: Chris Douglas-Roberts, Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo.
Neal said the best advice he can offer is to leave nothing to chance you might regret later.
“I just tell guys, do every possible thing to prepare. Whether that means get up extra shots or getting treatment for your body,” Neal said. “You don’t want to look back on Game 1 and second-guess what else you could have done to be ready.”