Ailene Voisin

Rudy Gay took a risk leaving the Kings. How he's become a smashing success with Spurs

San Antonio Spurs' Rudy Gay, center, drives the ball between Golden State Warriors' Kevon Looney (5) and Klay Thompson, right, during the second half in Game 1 of a first-round NBA playoff series Saturday, April 14, 2018, in Oakland, Calif.
San Antonio Spurs' Rudy Gay, center, drives the ball between Golden State Warriors' Kevon Looney (5) and Klay Thompson, right, during the second half in Game 1 of a first-round NBA playoff series Saturday, April 14, 2018, in Oakland, Calif. AP

Rudy Gay took a shot last summer – in some respects, the longest shot of his NBA career. Instead of returning to the Kings for the final year of a contract and a guaranteed $14.2 million salary, he took a risk, walked away from the deal and opted for free agency.

But this is what makes it really crazy. Gay was still limping when he made his decision. He was seven months into grueling rehabilitation to repair his ruptured left Achilles, an injury that causes many athletes to retire prematurely, and with few exceptions, results in diminished skills.

He read the medical studies. He knew the numbers. He closely monitors his finances. He also has a wife and two children, and at 30, was approaching the downside of his career. And yet …

“I just needed to do it,” said Gay, after leading the San Antonio Spurs with 15 points in Sunday’s loss to the Golden State Warriors in the opener of this first-round playoff series. “I was at a standstill, a point in my career where I needed to perform at a high level, needed to be pushed to perform at a high level, needed to be challenged. Being down 0-1 in the playoffs? That’s why I needed to make that move.”

As it turns out, the Spurs needed the veteran small forward more than they ever could have imagined. When Gregg Popovich convinced Gay to sign a two-year, $17.2 million deal, the sales pitch was as old as, well, the Spurs’ reign of excellence.

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Veterans Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green were still around. LaMarcus Aldridge was under contract. And the most dominant two-way player in the league – the silent and mysterious Kawhi Leonard – was expected to recover from his tendon injury before the start of the regular season.

Leonard, of course, is sidelined indefinitely, seeking medical attention from his personal physicians, disengaged from his teammates and coaches. He was nowhere to be found Saturday in Oracle Arena, fueling speculation that he might not be found in San Antonio next season, either.

Without Leonard’s spectacular defense, crafty passing, versatile offense and his ability to make the big plays, the Spurs are a shrunken version of themselves.

If JaVale McGee (gulp) wasn’t dunking, Kevin Durant was stroking jumpers, Klay Thompson was burying 3-pointers, Draymond Green was finding teammates for backcuts (11 assists), and for the first time in several weeks, the defensive intensity was reminiscent of the team that won two NBA championships in three years.

Gay was one of the Spurs' few bright spots. Coming off the bench, he scored 10 points in the opening half with a variety of familiar post ups, stepback jumpers and 3-pointers from the top of the arc. His performance earned him a starting spot in the second half and strong consideration to be in the lineup for Game 2 tipoff Monday night.

“He’s somebody they have to guard,” Popovich added. “We have a few players that they don’t guard, which makes it very difficult getting shots and doing some things. So Rudy helped us in that sense.”

Considering the severity of the injury, Gay’s 12th season is nothing short of a smashing success. While he was driving baseline that fateful January 2017, evening against the Indiana Pacers, anticipating a wide open dunk, he suddenly felt a pop. He crumbled to the court and immediately grabbed the left ankle, his features contorted in agony. Golden 1 Center became silent, as if everyone expected the worst.

Even the Spurs didn’t expect to activate him until December. The plan was to be cautious and be ready for the playoffs.

But that wasn’t Gay’s plan. He is a risk taker these days, remember, and he had every intention of recovering in time for opening night – which he did. That’s not to say his rehabilitation wasn’t physically and emotionally overwhelming at times, that it didn’t lead to dark moods, to moments of doubt, to hours of introspection, to lifestyle changes.

Gay, who was immobile for four months, then advancing to a scooter for two more months, changed his diet to avoid gaining weight. Pancakes for breakfast were replaced by vegetable omelets. Fast-food lunches and dinners gave way to lean meats, vegetables and healthy carbohydrates.

“It was tough, it was tough,” he conceded. “All these people you see out there, your peers showing their talent, and you’re home. You keep pushing. Nobody can push you like yourself. I had to scale myself back a little bit, or the Spurs did.”

He isn’t as fluid as he was, nor as explosive. His lateral quickness is suspect. Additionally, he missed 23 games with right heel tendonitis in December, possibly related to the surgically repaired left Achilles.

But Gay is in the playoffs for only the second time, and for the time since his Memphis Grizzlies lost to the Los Angeles Clippers in the opening round in 2012. Six months later he was traded to the Toronto Raptors, who swapped him to the Kings in December 2013.

Coincidentally, the Spurs’ squeaker over the Kings in the final days of the regular season extended San Antonio’s playoff streak to 21 years. Gay bantered with Kings fans on Twitter after the critical victory, but says the win was nothing personal, was all about the playoffs.

“I just wanted the game to secure the reason I came here,” he said, with a grin. “Nothing against the fans. I love the fans. Even my former teammates. But people are funny.”

Well, he’s laughing now. Finally.

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