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Saturday, October 06, 2007

Spurs on the Brink of a Sweep

This article was originally published at NBCSports.com on 6/13/07

Bruce Bowen made LeBron James work on every possession, shot 4-5 from three point range and tied Tim Duncan with a team-high nine rebounds as the Spurs edged the Cavaliers 75-72 to take a 3-0 lead in the NBA Finals. "He did everything for us," Duncan said after the game. "You can’t say enough about him. He’ll get it done and it doesn’t matter if he gets one shot or eight shots...That’s what defines our team, what he does." Duncan had a subpar night statistically--14 points on 6-17 field goal shooting, nine rebounds, three assists, two blocked shots--but don’t let the numbers fool you; much of San Antonio’s success at both ends of the court is a direct result of his presence. Duncan shuts down the paint on defense, forcing any Cleveland player who drives to shoot a contested shot. His defensive work in the previous games seemed to affect the Cavaliers’ approach in Game 3; they settled for too many three point shots and connected on just three of their 19 attempts from behind the arc. On offense, Duncan seems to be a magnet for Cavaliers’ players, who swarm him trying to prevent him from utilizing his deadly jump hooks and face-up bank shots. That leaves the other Spurs wide open behind the three point line and they came through by making 10 of their 19 three pointers. "That was a huge difference in the game," Cleveland Coach Mike Brown said, noting that the teams were pretty even in most of the other statistical categories.

Tony Parker got off to a slow start and did not score until the 7:35 mark in the second quarter but he ended up with a team-high 17 points. Before the game, Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich talked about Parker’s evolution as a player: "When he first came and we got him into training camp, we knew right away that we had a competitor, and we put him to the test, we stuck him in the frying pan and we wanted to find out if he was going to be able to handle it, if he was going to break or if he was going to take it and show something. We did a couple things before the draft in working him out. We set it up a certain way to see if he could handle the physical nature of what was about to happen to him in the NBA and he came through with flying colors on that. Then when the real training camp began, all the drills that we did with him went toward the physical side and we had guys that understood that he needed to be tested quickly and they did and he rose to the occasion. Throughout the season he’s steadily improved himself, as I said before, in the decision-making area. We know he can score. He’s a little bit underrated defensively; he takes pride in it. But his decision-making, understanding the game situation, behind, ahead, shot clock, momentum, who hasn’t touched the ball lately, what might work, you know, giving me suggestions from time to time the way Avery (Johnson) used to do, he’s starting to get into that league and that’s been great to see."

LeBron James led the Cavaliers with 25 points and seven assists. He also had eight rebounds, all on the defensive glass, but he again struggled with his ballhandling/decision making--committing five turnovers--and he shot just 9-23 from the field. "We do pretty good with sticking with our game plan," Duncan said of the Spurs’ success defending James. "It’s worked so far and we’re not going to change a whole lot. Whether he tries to impose his will or not, we’re going to be standing in front of him."

The Cavaliers got off to a good start and led by as many as eight points in the first half. The difference for the Cavs compared to the first two games was the tremendous energy provided by Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden on the boards. Midway through the first quarter, Gooden had outrebounded the Spurs 6-5. The Spurs are like flowing water, though. Water does not seem to be as strong as rock but over time water creates canyons. The Spurs keep flowing and keep pounding and eventually they carve up their opponents. By halftime, they led 40-38 and they never trailed again.

Prior to the game, Cleveland placed starting point guard Larry Hughes on the inactive list and elevated Daniel Gibson to the starting point guard spot. This is a move that many observers have been clamoring for but there is a reason that coaches do not like to tamper with their player rotations unless it is absolutely necessary. I asked Coach Brown about this in his pregame press conference and he replied, "Larry went three straight games against the team that won the East (i.e., had the best regular season record in the conference) in the Pistons and we had a nice rotation that we’re comfortable with. Daniel has a nice rhythm coming off the bench. He feels good about it, we feel good about it. That’s the reason. I’m not worried about Daniel playing 10 minutes, 30 minutes, 40 minutes. He’s a young guy and he’ll have a few months to rest here in a couple of weeks, so it doesn’t matter." At that point, Brown had yet to speak with the training staff to ascertain Hughes’ condition but Brown said, "If he (Hughes) can go, it’s going to be just like normal. He’s going to start, and I’ll keep watching him. His minutes may be limited like they have been ever since he’s been injured against Detroit and even in the last two ball games and then if he can’t (start) we’ll just have to make a decision."

Gibson thrived when he came off of the bench but he struggled mightily as a starter, even though his minutes did not increase that much. He shot 1-10 from the field, including 0-5 from three point range. Moreover, Hughes went from starting to not even playing at all, which further altered the Cavaliers’ rotation and basically completely depleted their bench, which accounted for just seven points. Granted, Hughes hardly put up great numbers in the first two games, but if he had been able to start and play 20 minutes then the Cavaliers could have used their normal rotation, Gibson would probably have played a little better and the Cavaliers may very well have won. After the game, I asked Brown if Gibson’s performance as the Game 3 starter is indicative of why Brown did not make this move earlier in the series. "The team had a nice rhythm, starting Larry and bringing Daniel off the bench," Brown said. "Daniel had a nice rhythm also. That’s why we wanted to keep it like that." Of course, Brown tried to spin this situation positively for the future, concluding, "Tonight I had a gut feel and I went with starting Daniel and I thought he did some good things out on the floor. His shot didn’t go down, but I thought he defended well. I thought he tried to run the team as best as he can and there were some positives. It was a good experience for him to start in a game like that."

The game still came down to the final seconds. With 25.9 seconds left and the Spurs clinging to a 72-70 lead, Anderson Varejao grabbed a defensive rebound. Brown repeatedly screamed that he wanted a timeout but neither his players nor the referees heard him. James ultimately got the ball, drove to the hoop and passed to Varejao. After the game, James explained that he expected to get the ball back "to get a good look at it or give my teammate a better look at it but it was just a miscommunication." Varejao missed a shot but the Spurs left the door open when Manu Ginobili split a pair of free throws. James scored on a quick drive to the hoop, Ginobili made two free throws and the Cavaliers had one last shot, trailing 75-72 with 5.5 seconds left. James caught the ball, Bowen seemed to try to foul him--"incidental contact," James said after the game, making no excuses--and James’ shot rimmed out.

The Cavaliers’ fate in this series hung in the balance as that ball danced on the rim; down 2-1, the Cavs would be full of life but instead they are down 3-0 and the only question left about this series is when the Spurs will deliver the final death blow.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:47 AM

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