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Friday, October 05, 2007

Basketball 101: Spurs Put on a Clinic in the First Two Games Versus the Cavs

This article was originally published at NBCSports.com on 6/11/07

The first two games of the 2007 NBA Finals seemed more like a basketball clinic than a competition, with San Antonio doing the teaching and Cleveland learning some hard lessons about what it takes to win at the highest level of the sport. Game 1 was close in the first half but then the Spurs’ suffocating defense and precise offensive execution took over in an 85-76 victory. In Game 2 the Spurs raced to the third biggest halftime lead in Finals history, 58-33. San Antonio pushed that margin to 89-60 near the end of the third quarter but Cleveland went on a 27-6 run and only trailed by eight with 4:53 remaining. Cleveland nearly transformed what was shaping up to be one of the worst Finals performances ever into perhaps the most improbable comeback of all time--but a Tony Parker jumper and a four point play by Manu Ginobili put the game out of reach and the Spurs won, 103-92. After the game, Ginobili made it clear that he was not pleased at how the fourth quarter went. "It was irresponsible of us," he declared. Parker led the Spurs in scoring again with 30 points, while Tim Duncan flirted with a triple double (23 points, nine rebounds, eight assists) and Ginobili contributed 25 points, six rebounds, two assists and three steals. LeBron James started the game playing much more aggressively than he did in Game 1 but he picked up two quick fouls and had to sit out the final 9:05 of the first quarter. James struggled when he returned to the game, shooting an airball free throw and an airball jumper but he closed the game strongly as the Cavs made their late run, finishing with 25 points, seven rebounds and six assists. It was still not a vintage James performance, though: he only shot 9-21 from the field and he committed six turnovers.

On the surface it might seem like Cleveland faces a host of insurmountable problems but there are three main areas that the Cavs need to address before Game 3. (1) The Cavaliers must get a handle on Parker’s dribble penetration and force him to get his points outside of the paint. (2) The Cavaliers must maintain a higher level of focus and effort and eliminate the mental errors that plagued them in both games. James’ early foul trouble in Game 2 was a direct result of a missed defensive rotation, which left James guarding Duncan in the post. (3) If the Cavaliers are going to continue to double-team Duncan then he must not score over 20 points while shooting better than .500 from the field. So far, the Cavs have neither shut down Duncan nor contained his wingmen Parker and Ginobili. The Cavs cannot win if Duncan is going to hurt them with his scoring and his passing, on top of the way that he has completely shut down the paint defensively.

After Game 1, many observers suggested that rookie Daniel Gibson should either start in place of Larry Hughes or at least receive heavier minutes. Hughes, who tore the plantar fascia in his left foot early in the Eastern Conference Finals, started Game 2 but played only 20 scoreless minutes, while Gibson scored 15 points in 32 minutes. The Cavs made their fourth quarter comeback with a lineup of LeBron James, Donyell Marshall, Anderson Varejao, Daniel Gibson and Damon Jones--basically, Cleveland flanked James with one rebounder (Varejao) and three three-point shooters. On paper that is not a great defensive group but they held their own at that end while really providing a spark offensively. The reason that Coach Mike Brown does not start that unit or deploy it for more extended minutes is that, other than James, none of those players have received heavy minutes all season. That group can definitely provide a spark for a short period of time and Coach Brown might go to that lineup a little earlier in Game 3 but it is not realistic to expect that combination of players to last for 35 or 40 minutes, both from a stamina standpoint and also because if they are out there that long then the Spurs will exploit them defensively. Think of a blitzing defense in pro football--it is a great surprise weapon but if you blitz on every down then any decent quarterback will pick it apart. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich candidly admitted after the game that some of his substitution patterns and defensive calls in the fourth quarter were not the best; San Antonio will no doubt react differently--and more effectively--the next time that group of players is on the court together. Meanwhile, the Cavs must get more offensive production out of starting center Zydrunas Ilgauskas and more defensive awareness from starting power forward Drew Gooden, who has shot well during the first two games but had several lapses at the other end of the court, including running out at Parker, enabling him to drive, as opposed to closing out his defensive rotation with an angle that forces Parker to shoot a contested jump shot.

When they are at the best the Spurs look like five bodies connected to one mind: on defense they hound James all over the court, making sure that multiple bodies obstruct his path to the hoop, while on offense their player movement and ball movement is razor sharp. What the upcoming games in Cleveland will tell us is whether the Cavs’ late runs in Games 1 and 2 resulted from Cleveland increasing its intensity and focus or the Spurs merely letting up off of the gas pedal a bit as the finish line neared. If it is the former and if the Cavs can sustain their good play for more than a quarter at a time, then this could still turn into a competitive series; otherwise, the first NBA Finals games ever played in Cleveland could be the last games of this year’s Finals.

posted by David Friedman @ 2:44 AM

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