Look Out Detroit and Boston: Here Comes ClevelandMany commentators wrote off the Cleveland Cavaliers before the season began but I have consistently maintained that Cleveland will be a tough out come playoff time. We are starting to see signs of that already: the Cavs beat the Spurs 90-88 on Thursday night in the first game between the teams since San Antonio swept Cleveland in the 2007 NBA Finals. The Cavaliers have won three straight games and nine of their last 11 to move within two games of Orlando for the third best record in the Eastern Conference. LeBron James had 27 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and a couple blocked shots against Tony Parker to nullify layups by the speedy guard who won last year's Finals MVP. James shot just 9-24 from the field, including 2-8 in the fourth quarter, but he made several key plays in the last couple minutes to preserve the win. Zydrunas Ilgauskas provided a strong second offensive option (17 points on 7-11 shooting), while Anderson Varejao contributed 12 points, a game-high14 rebounds and a game-high +12 plus/minus rating. Manu Ginobili scored a game-high 31 points, Tony Parker had 23 points and Tim Duncan added 20 points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots. However, no other Spur scored more than four points.
This game was not always well played but it was hotly contested, with the outcome not decided until Ginobili's last jumper rolled off of the rim as time expired. Cleveland used the three-fold recipe for victory that will make this team so deadly once again in the playoffs: (1) Defense (holding the Spurs to 88 points on .434 field goal shooting), (2) rebounding (45-40 advantage) and (3) the brilliance of LeBron James, who not only leads the league in scoring but also ranks first in fourth quarter scoring; James had six points and three assists in the final period versus the Spurs.
San Antonio's starters outperformed Cleveland's first five and built a 26-19 lead by the end of the first quarter. Things began to turn around for the Cavs when Varejao and other reserves outplayed the Spurs' bench players during the second quarter. By halftime, Cleveland led 50-43. Don't forget that Varejao and starting shooting guard Sasha Pavlovic held out during the early part of the season. Pavlovic has struggled to return to the form he showed near the end of last season but Varejao almost immediately had a big impact; Cleveland lost two of the first three games after he came back but won 11 of the next 15 games. Although he had a double double versus the Spurs, Varejao makes his presence felt even during games in which he does not make much of a mark in the boxscore--he adds instant energy, he plays active defense, he takes charges and he is a good pick and roll player. During his time off he even added a jump shot to his repertoire and improved his free throw shooting.
The Cavaliers extended their lead to 12 points in the second half but the Spurs fought all the way back to go ahead 78-77 on Parker's fast break layup with 6:42 left in the fourth quarter. Neither team led by more than three the rest of the way, resulting in an action packed final 2:35. James made two free throws to put Cleveland up, 85-84. Soon after that he made a big defensive play, drawing a charge in the open court against Ginobili. The Cavs had no answer for Parker's quick drives to the hoop during last year's Finals but James seemed to make it his personal mission to rectify that; he came out of nowhere earlier in the game to block two of Parker's layups and with 1:34 remaining in the fourth quarter he just missed getting a third rejection. Instead, James was called for goaltending and the Spurs had an 86-85 advantage. Cleveland answered on the next possession with some great ball movement, James to Larry Hughes to Daniel Gibson for the open corner three pointer to make the score 88-86, Cavs. Duncan's layup tied the game again but James provided the game winning basket on a drive with :33 left. After Parker missed two free throws, James could have iced the game but he missed a three pointer. San Antonio had a timeout left but elected to push the ball up the court to try to score before the Cavs could set their defense. Ginobili got off a good shot but it did not go in.
This game tells us a lot more about the Cavs than it does about the Spurs. San Antonio goes through the regular season without getting too high or too low and, barring injury to a key player, will always be a serious factor in the Western Conference playoffs; even on a night when the Spurs did not play exceptionally well they still had a chance to win at the buzzer. On the other hand, the Cavs must be given credit for having something to do with the fact that the Spurs performed a bit below their normal standard. Now that the Cavs have essentially the same rotation that they used to make it to last year's Finals people are going to see what I have been saying all along: this team was no fluke last year. Defense, rebounding and the brilliance of LeBron James is a pretty formidable recipe. Don't say you weren't warned, Boston and Detroit.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:51 AM