Sunday, June 10, 2007

Back to School

After spending most of last week in Los Angeles without easy access to a computer, I'm back. Miss me? Fine, go read Bill Plaschke for all I care. Fortunately, I was able to catch Game 1 of the NBA Finals from my hotel.

While I was impressed with the Cavs' first half efforts, the Spurs picked them apart in the second half. The fact that Cleveland was only down by five at halftime made it pretty clear that they were capable of hanging with a veteran Spurs team, or were at least good enough to make it a close game. In a nutshell, the Spurs made the necessary adjustments, and the Cavs didn't. Popovich and company went about their business by speeding up the offense and locking down the paint on defense. The Cavs could not keep up with the Spurs speed and precise passing schemes, resulting in a game changing run early in the second half. Throw in another mid-30% shooting performance by Cleveland to close it out and that's your ballgame.

Now, the optimistic fan (not me, but play along here) would expect the Cavs to use Game 1 as a learning experience and come back with a refined plan of attack over their two off days. I honestly wasn't as concerned with losing Game 1 in such an ugly manner because

- The team showed it can take it to the Spurs in the first half.
- LeBron needed a couple games to warm up the engine in the last series, as well.
- Game 1 was on the road.

On Game 2

Oddly enough, Game 2 ended up a lot like Game 1, only in reverse. San Antonio gradually built up an imposing 11 point lead to end the first quarter. LeBron picked up two quick fouls in the first, forcing Coach Brown to bench his best player three minutes into the game. James did not return to the floor until the start of the second quarter. Everything fell apart after that. The Cavs looked lost on both ends of the floor: the passing was sloppy and the offense often looked like it didn't have a plan (or at least didn't execute). Cleveland just looked out-classed trying to guard the Spurs. Whenever they would double-team Duncan or another big man inside, they'd get stung by the three-pointer. It was brutal to watch the Spurs rack up the points, even when a defensive play seemed to be working; the Spurs were just too good.

Lebron's early foul trouble was very visible on the floor and set the tempo on offense for the Cavs in the first half. In the first two possessions of the second quarter for Cleveland, LeBron took two perimeter jump shots, missing both. He looked rushed and was obviously hesitant to rush inside the paint in case he had to go to the bench again with foul trouble. LeBron's aggressive play was crucial to the Cavs' previous wins and was absent for much of Game 2.

The majority of the game can basically be summed up by two series of possessions. On the Cavs end, with his team down by over 20 points, James drove hard to the hoop three straight times, but was forced to attempt a very difficult layup to avoid a wall of Spurs. James did not score in these three possessions. On the Spurs end, they out-hustled the Cavs to get three straight offensive rebounds to keep the possession alive before hitting the perimeter shot. The Cavs looked ragged just trying to keep up.

On the Comeback

To be honest, I was only casually watching the late third and early fourth quarters. I looked up one minute (I had muted the announcers' Robert Horry love fest) to find the Cavs are only down by 12. Qué? Somehow, the Cavs managed to kick it into overdrive, going on a 25-6 run in the fourth quarter. That's a 29 point deficit erased in roughly 12 minutes, boys and girls. That's fairly encouraging after watching one's team get demolished for 3/4 of the game. The Cavs near comeback was done with San Antonio's starting five on the floor and essentially came down to who wanted it more for a stretch. Cleveland was just out-hustling the Spurs during their run, gaining confidence with each shot. The good news is, Cleveland avoided an embarrassing loss, showing a strong pulse and possibly regaining some of their former swagger. The bad news is, they got San Antonio's attention in a big way. Popovich and Duncan are too professional to let their team forget something like a 25-6 run in the final quarter of a game.

The key to Game 3 will be how each team reacts to the events of that fourth quarter.

Even when they were down by over 20, the Cavs bench could be seen smiling and giving high-fives after a good shot. Eric Snow continued his quasi-assistant coaching duties, taking players aside and revving up the team. Even though the game was all but lost at that point, positive attitudes prevailed, preventing unneeded tension. The Cavs may be inexperienced, but they showed their maturity and determination in Game 2.

On LeBron's Pressure

Michael Wilbon described LeBron's playoff run as an "apprenticeship," given the fact LeBron is still learning things that he would have otherwise picked up playing in big games in college. I would certainly agree with the statement that James has faced a steep learning curve as he leads his Cavaliers deeper into the playoffs this year. It took the first two games of the Detroit series for James to figure out how to approach Detroit's stifling D. Like the Conference Finals, it seems that James has hit a learning curve against the Spurs. And, like the last series, it is unreasonable to place the burden of an entire city on a 23 year old playing in his first NBA Finals (and only second playoff appearance).

Fans and the media are quick to forget just how inexperienced James truly is. While he exudes maturity and leadership and is arguably the most talented player on the floor, there is no substitute for experience, perhaps the most valuable asset of all in this series.

The Cavs have proven they can beat San Antonio (2-0 in the regular season), but San Antonio is as professional as they come and is a proven playoff team. The Spurs will not panic in the face of a late, 25-6 run or implode before a charging LeBron (like Detroit).

It is absolutely ridiculous to place the blame solely on James, as his teammates have absolutely failed to rise to the occasion in this series thus far. One could make the point that James needs to pass more, or be more aggressive, but the bottom line is, the rest of the Cavs have been struggling just as much as James and he can not be expected to deal with the expectations and burden of winning a championship by himself.

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