Death by Execution: Spurs' Precision Play Carves up the CavsThe "Big Three" of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili scored 67 points on 27-52 shooting from the field (.519) as the San Antonio Spurs defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 85-76 in Game One of the NBA Finals. Duncan had another understated yet dominant performance--no highlight reel moves or dunks but he controlled the action at both ends of the court with 24 points, 13 rebounds and five blocked shots. Bruce Bowen did a good job versus LeBron James, who finished with 14 points (4-16 field goal shooting), seven rebounds, four assists and six turnovers, but a big part of why Bowen was so successful was Duncan's presence in the lane. Duncan blocked James' shots on a couple occasions and altered many other attempts by James and his teammates. Daniel Gibson led Cleveland in scoring with 16 points on 7-9 shooting and tied James with a team-high four assists. It is clear now that Gibson is not just a spot-up shooter; he has the same baby faced look that B.J. Armstrong did and the same deceptively versatile offensive game (don't forget that Armstrong made the All-Star team the year after Michael Jordan's first retirement). Gibson also reminds one a little of a young Sam Cassell--he is not affected by the score, the time remaining or the opponent; he just plays.
While the Spurs showed some signs of rust from not having played since May 30, they consistently came up with big baskets and big defensive stops at crucial moments. San Antonio led from the beginning, as Michael Finley opened the scoring with a jump shot, and the Spurs were on top for most of the game, although Cleveland briefly went ahead by as much as three points in the second quarter. The Spurs made six of their first seven shots but this did not rattle the Cavaliers, who only trailed 20-15 at the end of the first quarter despite the fact that James scored just two points and did not make a field goal. Duncan had eight points and four rebounds in the first quarter.
Cleveland had no answer for Parker's dribble penetration, as he repeatedly scored or dished to teammates--often Duncan--for easy baskets. Parker finished with 27 points, seven assists and four rebounds. Larry Hughes would normally guard Parker but Hughes is simply too hobbled by his plantar fascia injury to stay in front of Parker. James, who is not noted for his defense (although he did a commendable job for stretches against Chauncey Billups in the Eastern Conference Finals), actually defended Parker better than any other Cavalier, cutting off his driving lanes and forcing him to shoot contested jumpers--some of which Parker made anyway. Cleveland cannot expect James to carry the scoring, rebounding and playmaking load plus guard Parker for extended periods so this matchup has to be the coaching staff's number one concern going into Game Two. James may have to guard Parker down the stretch in the fourth quarter if the game is close but the Cavs must find some way to contain Parker for the first three quarters or so.
James had just four points (0-7 field goal shooting) and one assist in the first half but Cleveland only trailed 40-35. James' low assist total is a little deceptive, as ABC's Jeff Van Gundy noted, for two reasons: his teammates missed a lot of open shots and James often had the "hockey assist" (the pass that led to the pass that gets credited as an assist) on the baskets that they did make. Still, there is no denying that the Cavaliers stayed close to the Spurs for a half despite the fact that James was hardly dominant. What many people don't understand is that the Cavaliers are a very good defensive team. That means that they are unlikely to get blown out and that they will usually be close enough in the fourth quarter for James to at least have an opportunity to take over the game.
A big problem for Cleveland this year--and particularly in the playoffs--has been sluggish third quarter play. That happened again on Thursday, as the Spurs outscored the Cavs 24-14 in the third quarter. Drew Gooden scored 10 of his 14 total points in the third quarter and James' first field goal of the game brought Cleveland to within 46-41 but the Spurs slowly but inexorably pulled away. A killer sequence happened at the 2:21 mark: Gooden committed a flagrant foul as Ginobili attempted a breakaway layup; Ginobili made one of two free throws and then Bowen drained a three pointer on the ensuing possession. The Spurs then got a stop and Duncan hit a jumper, putting San Antonio ahead 64-49 going into the fourth quarter.
The Spurs went up by as much as 18 points in the final period before the Cavaliers rallied to cut the lead to 80-72 with 1:53 remaining. Then came the defining moment of the game. Gibson stole the ball and Cleveland had an opportunity to make it a two possession game. James dribbled outside the three point line but did not attack the paint, perhaps wary of Duncan's presence; instead, James launched an errant fadeaway three pointer. As ABC's Mark Jackson observed, that is the kind of shot that James made in his monumental 48 point Game Five performance versus Detroit but it is not the best shot in that situation. The Spurs promptly executed a beautiful high-low play, culminating in a slick bounce pass from Robert Horry to Tim Duncan, who dunked the ball to make the score 82-72. If James' shot goes in then Cleveland is only down five but, as Doug Collins might say, it was a high risk, low reward play. The Spurs responded with a low risk, high reward play that clinched the win--and that was the main difference between the two teams in Game One. The Spurs hardly played a perfect game but whenever they needed to score they ran picture perfect pick and roll or backdoor plays that resulted in dunks; meanwhile, they played their characteristic lock down defense for most of the game, except for a couple lapses in the second and fourth quarters.
The Cavaliers are a resilient team, as they proved by overcoming a 2-0 deficit versus the favored Detroit Pistons, so don't assume that they will be discouraged by this loss. They showed that they can hang tough with the Spurs even when James has a subpar performance and it is likely that this will turn out to be his worst game of the series. In order to win Game Two the Cavaliers must limit Parker's points in the paint and make open shots when James is trapped and gives up the ball. Also, James must be more in tune to how he is being guarded--when he gets defensive rebounds he must push the ball and try to score in transition before the Spurs set up their halfcourt defense and when the Spurs sag off of him in the halfcourt he must take (and make) the midrange jumpers that they are conceding to him. Unless the shot clock is about to expire, James needs to shelve the fadeaway three pointers; the Spurs are cutting off his driving lanes but daring him to shoot 15 foot jump shots and he must show that he can consistently make those shots. I would not be surprised if Game Two is a close contest that is decided by a last second shot/defensive play.
posted by David Friedman @ 2:55 AM