It's Just a Matter of Time Now: Spurs Take 3-0 Lead Over CavsSan Antonio's 75-72 Game Three win over Cleveland tied for the second lowest scoring game in the NBA Finals since the advent of the 24 second shot clock in 1954-55--but don't tell the Spurs that they are boring or that their victories are ugly. "We ended up being fortunate enough to win the game, so we're thrilled about it," Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said moments after the game. He literally uttered a sigh of relief as he sat down on the postgame interview stage--and for good reason: winning this game all but clinches the Spurs' fourth championship, while a loss would have left the series very much up for grabs.
Tony Parker got off to a slow start but still finished with a team-high 17 points. Tim Duncan finished with 14 points, nine rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots. He shot just 6-17 from the field but attracted so much defensive attention that the Spurs obtained many wide open three pointers, shooting 10-19 from that distance. Bruce Bowen contributed 13 points (shooting 4-5 from three point range) and tied Duncan with a team-high nine rebounds, in addition to his tireless defense against LeBron James. Manu Ginobili shot 0-7 from the field, finishing with three points, five assists and four rebounds. In other words, none of the Spurs' "Big Three" played great from a statistical standpoint and the Spurs still won the game.
James finished with 25 points, eight rebounds and seven assists but shot only 9-23 from the field and committed a game-high five turnovers. Zydrunas Ilgauskas (12 points, 18 rebounds) and Drew Gooden provided some much needed energy (13 points, 12 rebounds) as the Cavs dominated the glass early in the contest. The Spurs closed that gap to 48-41 in Cleveland's favor by the end of the game and that was not enough of a margin for the Cavs to overcome their abysmal 3-19 three point shooting.
Cleveland fans will long rue several missed shots and turnovers down the stretch by the Cavaliers, including a wild attempt by Anderson Varejao with the Cavs down two points with 13 seconds left; none of the Cavs' players heard Coach Mike Brown screaming early in that key possession for the Cavs to take a timeout. They will also lament that Bruce Bowen seemed to be trying to intentionally foul James as he attempted a last second three pointer to tie the game. No foul was called and James' shot--on which the Cavs' fleeting title hopes depended--rimmed out.
A play by play account of one of the lowest scoring Finals games hardly figures to be scintillating, so let's turn our focus toward some key storylines and how they have progressed during this series.
1) Tim Duncan's quest for a place among basketball's immortals
Duncan is almost certainly closer to the end of his career than the beginning and his place in history has been secure for some time. Now, though, he is in the process of moving up the charts, so to speak. The 2007 championship will be Duncan's fourth, matching Shaquille O'Neal's total, exceeding Larry Bird's by one and placing him just one title behind Magic Johnson. Duncan has become the face of the post-Michael Jordan era--a stoic and softspoken face (at least publicly) but the face of the league nonetheless. Duncan is younger and in better condition than Shaquille O'Neal was when he won his fourth title, so Duncan has a decent shot at getting five or even six rings, which would match Jordan.
2) LeBron James' quest for a place among basketball's immortals
Unlike Duncan, James is much closer to the beginning of his career than the end. He has already put together some great regular seasons, some great playoff games and some great playoff series. The next step for him individually is to continue to improve his defense, free throw shooting and perimeter shooting; the next step for him to reach the level that Duncan has been at for several years is to lead the Cavs to a championship. It does not seem like he will be able to do this in 2007 but it does seem like James will accomplish this eventually.
3) Speed kills in the NBA
Bob Cousy told me years ago that speed, not size, "separates the men from the boys." This was true when Cousy played in the 1950s and 1960s and it is even more true today as the NBA has legislated against defensive contact on perimeter players. This enables fast players to zip around the court without being held, hand checked or bumped. Tony Parker may very well win the 2007 Finals MVP and if he does then during his acceptance speech he should thank the NBA rules makers. Parker deserves credit for working very hard on his game since he entered the league but there is no doubt that the current NBA rules are tailor made for his game.
4) More "Boobie" is not always a good thing
All we've been hearing since this series began is that the Cavs should bench Larry Hughes, who has gamely played despite a torn plantar fascia in his left foot, and replace him with rookie Daniel "Boobie" Gibson, who has excelled in his role coming off of the bench. I wrote about this subject in a previous post, concluding that Cleveland Coach Mike Brown has some good reasons for not making this change. I asked him about this prior to Game Three and he acknowledged that part of his thought process has been to not disrupt the rhythm of the team; players get used to their roles, so changing those roles can have a bad domino effect. Hughes was placed on the inactive list for Game Three, though, so Gibson got the call to start. His minutes did not increase that much but his role changed and he ended up shooting 1-10 from the field in a close game. I predicted in the aforementioned post that if Hughes did not start then he likely would not play at all, because there is no sense letting him get cold and stiff on the bench before putting him in the game. That turned out to be the case. We all know that his 20 minutes or so of action did not produce much statistically in the first two games but that did not cost the Cavs those games; the blame for that belongs in great part to the Cavs' underperforming frontcourt players Gooden and Ilgauskas, who rebounded and defended poorly in those games, though Gooden did shoot well from the field. Hughes' minutes enabled Gibson to provide a spark off of the bench. Cleveland's bench scored just seven points in Game Three and Gibson was not any more effective statistically as a starter than Hughes had been. Maybe coaches actually know more about their players' limitations than outsiders do. What a shocking concept!
Notes From Courtside:
Bill Livingston, who currently writes for the (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, agreed with my assessment that he has been blessed; at the beginning of his career he had the privilege of covering Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers and now he has the opportunity to chronicle the exploits of young LeBron James. Livingston told me and the Philadelphia Daily News' Phil Jasner (winner of the 2004 Curt Gowdy Award presented by the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame) that James' 48 point performance in Game Five versus Detroit is the best thing that he has seen in all of his years covering the NBA. Jasner did not disagree, although he mentioned that Allen Iverson's 48 point performance in Game One of the 2001 NBA Finals was also amazing.
Patrick Ewing, Julius Erving, Bill Russell and Bill Walton came to center court during a stoppage of play and were warmly greeted by the Quicken Loans Arena crowd. Erving seemed to receive the loudest cheers, though Russell was probably not too far behind. Erving looked up to Russell as a youngster, while Ewing admired Erving--several generations of basketball greatness were represented at that moment.
I spoke with Erving briefly right after he made a pregame appearance on NBA TV. I interviewed him in 2004 for my Basketball Digest article about the two ABA-NBA All-Star Games (1971 and 1972). I asked him if he read my recent NBC piece titled The Legacy of the ABA. Many things have been written about him over the years, so he could have just offered some generic comment--but he not only said that he had read the article but he mentioned some specific passages that appeared in it. That is so like Erving, who is as big a star as anyone but makes you feel important when you talk with him. The applause that he received is well deserved and reflects not only his greatness as a player but the way he conducts himself, in victory and defeat.
ABC commentator Mark Jackson has adamantly maintained that Kobe Bryant is the best player in the NBA and has a chance to be the greatest player of all time. I spoke with him prior to Game 3 and asked him to compare Bryant to James: “Two great players. I believe that Kobe Bryant is far and away the best player in the world. If you ask some of the great players in the world they will agree with what I said. LeBron James is an outstanding player and is only going to get better. He has had a great run to start his career and far surpassed what people expected of him and he’s going to be a joy to watch for a long time to come.” I asked Jackson to specifically explain why Bryant is better than James, suggesting that free throw shooting and defense are two obvious areas where James can improve. “Those things (and) Kobe is an outstanding outside shooter, which stretches the defense. They are both great players, apples and oranges, but I believe that Kobe Bryant, by far—and not just compared to LeBron—is the best player in the league.”
I asked Jackson if being the best player means that you should win the MVP. He replied, “Kobe Bryant wasn’t the MVP of the league this year. I voted for Dirk Nowitzki and I voted for Steve Nash second. You don’t have to be the best player to be the MVP…I voted for Kobe third. I would not vote for anyone for MVP from a team that did not make the playoffs. I thought that it was a feat for the Lakers to make the playoffs and that is why Kobe was worth consideration.”
posted by David Friedman @ 4:46 AM