Everybody loves LeBron James now. At the start of the Eastern Conference Finals James was roundly criticized by everybody for kicking the ball out to his best three point shooter. Ironically one of those critics was Magic Johnson who made a name for himself executing that very sort of play. Apparently the difference between James and Johnson is that Johnson had the telepathic ability to will the ensuing shot into the basket. More criticism followed after the second game where LeBron seemed unable to get his team inspired in the third quarter although he got a little backhanded credit for taking the ball to the rim late in the game. The analysts seemed more intent on patting themselves on the back for being right than they were with giving James credit for taking ownership of the game.
The love affair started in game five. The Cavaliers played well at home and took two games from what appeared to be an uninspired Pistons club but nobody expected the Pistons to fall in game five. The Pistons are dangerous when the pressure’s on. That was where LeBron James stepped up late and didn’t quit until the Cavs won the game. He scored all 25 of the Cavaliers final points and displayed the sort of clutch performance associated with the best players in the history of the game.
Game six was interesting. The Pistons went back to the defense that had stifled James in the first two games and it worked. LeBron couldn’t get his offense on track but the difference was that his teammates were finally hitting shots. Larry Hughes drilled key threes early and punished the Pistons for collapsing on James. Then young Daniel Gibson took over and nailed shot after shot to finish the game. James made key plays but it was the same generosity that he displayed in game one that made it possible to beat the Pistons big in the sixth and final game. It wasn’t even competitive. The Pistons quit with five minutes left to play.
Nobody gave the Cavaliers a chance to beat the Pistons. Most experts speculated that the Cavaliers were fortunate to have drawn such an easy playoff bid. Washington and Miami limped into the playoffs with injuries to key players and the Bulls, by virtue of one ill-times loss ended up drawing a semifinal match with the Pistons. Cleveland, they insisted, was the third best team in the playoffs with Detroit being the runaway favorite to win it all.
Cleveland took it to Detroit in the conference finals. Charles Barkley, who picked the Pistons to win, declared Cleveland the winner by virtue of a 6 game sweep. He elaborates that Cleveland basically outplayed Detroit in the first two games in spite of coming up short on the scoreboard and that LeBron demoralized the Pistons in game five. Cleveland simply rose to the challenge.
Still Barkley and other pundits don’t give the Cavs much of a chance against the Spurs. Everybody sees the Spurs as an unbeatable force even though they lost to the Cavaliers in both of their regular season meetings. Granted that was then and this is the Finals where the Spurs have won before but the Spurs did get a gift from David Stern when the NBA saddled Phoenix with a suspension and that was after receiving the gift of favorable calls all through the playoffs.
The Western Conference was thrown for quite a loop when the heavily favored Dallas Mavericks choked against the Warriors. That gave the Spurs what amounted to a week of practice as they toyed with Utah in the Western Conference finals.
When you compare these teams the Spurs don’t have that big of an edge. The Spurs have no answer for LeBron James. Unless Bruce Bowen manages to get a foot under James when he goes to the rim and send the NBA’s best player to the injured list, James will have a brilliant series. The only players big enough to stop James aren’t fast enough to guard him.
The Spurs also don’t have an answer for Zydrunas Ilgauskas unless they opt to put that burden on Duncan’s shoulders. Duncan can shut Z down but Z’s slippery enough to make him work for it which will undoubtedly detract from Duncan’s contributions on offense. Defensively the Cavs will employ a platoon of the energetic Anderson Varejao, who frustrated Rasheed Wallace to the point of ejection, Drew Gooden and Donyell Marshall to wear The Big Fundamental down.
The Spurs have a big advantage with Tony Parker who could force a double team if Larry Hughes’ injury tightens up and Daniel Gibson gets overwhelmed. A double team will shut down Parker, leaving Manu Ginobli open to do damage but the Cavs managed to handle the depth and versatility of Detroit’s backcourt with consistency. It’s clear that Mike Brown really does know what he’s doing.
And that brings us to coaching. Brown is still pretty new at his job and Popovich is his mentor. The Spurs appear to have the edge in coaching but don’t overlook Mike Brown. Who had the bigger challenge? Brown, who brought his team back from an 0-2 start or Popovich who faced his biggest challenge of the post season with a league-induced advantage? One thing the experts seem to agree on is that the Spurs were on the verge of being eliminated before David Stern sat the Suns’ most explosive player out for a pivotal game six and the Suns almost pulled off the upset. Who’s the better coach?
The real advantage the Spurs have is with the officiating. The Spurs got past the Suns by playing dirty. Roll the tape and you see a team getting away with nasty little cheap shots throughout the entire series. Bruce Bowen hasn’t been reprimanded for maliciously trying to injure players by rolling their ankles and buckling their knees and it’s unlikely they’ll put the screws to him now. Maybe LeBron’s star has risen enough to warrant a little protection from such pedestrian tactics and the plan will backfire. That’s the real issue. Will the Spurs carry their magic blanket of NBA-sanctioned protection into this series or will the Cavs be given a fair shot at taking them down?