The NBA Finals begin Thursday night, the Cleveland Cavaliers heavy underdogs against the San Antonio Spurs, who have won three titles since 1999.
The good news for ABC, which will carry the games at 9 p.m. EDT on Thursday, Sunday and Tuesday nights, is that LeBron James and the Cavs figure to draw better ratings than the Detroit Pistons would have. The bad news is the same could have been said for an infomercial about a hemorrhoid cure starring Gilbert Gottfried.
To give you an idea how jazzed ABC corporate parent Disney is about the Cavs-Spurs Finals, the lead story Thursday morning on ESPN's NBA page was a John Hollinger feature ranking all of the teams that have played in the Finals in the last 30 years. It's an interesting piece, but it's an off-day thumbsucker, not the kind of thing you run on the day the Finals start.
If you think anybody cares about the Finals.
Flyover Finals II pits the Spurs against their imitators. The Cavaliers are coached by former Spurs assistant Mike Brown and general managed by former Spurs player and executive Danny Ferry. They play a similar slow, defense-first style, and when things go bad, they turn to their superstar. James is more super than San Antonio's Tim Duncan, but he isn't yet more dominant.
That's the problem. The Cavs are like the Spurs, only not quite so much. It's sort of like the Monkees playing against the Beatles. That would sound way less insulting if you knew how much I love those Monkees, but OK, like "Baretta" against "Toma," "Spirit of '76" against "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," Pearl Jam against Nirvana, Ja Rule against Tupac, me against Jim Murray.
Both teams are known as defenders, but the Spurs' secret is they're a good offensive team. They were the fifth most efficient in the league this regular season, scoring 109.3 points per 100 possessions, just a whisker out of third place.
You'll hear this week that the Spurs had the 21st-ranked offense because they only scored 96 points a game, but that's because they play at a slow pace. They keep the ball away from their opponent, which is partly why they allowed a league-best 90.1 points per game.
But their offensive efficiency means that if the other team is able to speed the game up, the Spurs can win that way too. They're good at scoring, they just choose to take their time about it. That's why the Spurs are so tough: They can beat you at their game, and they can beat you at yours.
But Cleveland probably won't want to speed the game up. They're Spurs, the Sequel, remember?
The rest of the reason why the Spurs allow so few points is that they're efficient defensively too, holding opponents to 99.8 points per 100 possessions in the regular year, trailing only the Chicago Bulls at 99.4. The Cavs were fourth at 101.3. See? Anything Cleveland can do, San Antonio can do better.
Meanwhile, the Cavs were a middling team offensively, tied for 18th in the 30-team league in offensive efficiency at 105.5 points per 100 possessions. Tied with the New York Knicks. Draw your own conclusions.
But listen, you've watched the commercials. You know this is about LeBron James vs. Tim Duncan. Theater aficionados are looking forward to the big flop matchup between Anderson Varejao of Cleveland and Manu Ginobili of San Antonio.
I think what this series will come down to is the Spurs' superior firepower. James can take over a game like nobody else in the series, as he showed in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals. And it's been a pleasure to watch him grow into his superstar role right before our eyes these last few weeks. You can almost see the gears turning and the light bulbs coming on.
But the dropoff from James to his teammates is huge. There isn't a similar dropoff from the less spectacular but more consistent Duncan to his teammates because his teammates are such a large part of what he does. The Duncan-Tony Parker pick and roll can be a devastating weapon, as can the 3-point accuracy of Michael Finley and Bruce Bowen. Ginobili can fill either role, penetrating or spotting up for jumpers.
James' teammates are good enough to bring this team to the Finals, but they're stepping up in class here. Larry Hughes, Sasha Pavlovic, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden are a solid complement in the starting five, but they look across the line at better players. Ilgauskas, the Cavs' second option, is clearly better than Spurs center Fabricio Oberto, but the presence of Duncan on the defensive end goes a long way toward neutralizing that advantage.
The Cavs don't have anyone to match Ginobili's potential impact off the bench, though Varejao brings similar energy and is a good rebounder, one area where the Cavs actually have an edge. Backup point guard Daniel Gibson, who emerged in the Pistons series, is an interesting wild card, but Cleveland may have trouble finding minutes for him. Parker's offensive skills may force Brown to give those minutes to defensive specialist Eric Snow.
It's rarely a good idea for a team to try to change its style once it gets to the end of the playoffs, but I think that might be the Cavs' best hope. Playing their style means playing San Antonio's style, and San Antonio does it better.
I think the Cavs have to try to leverage their few advantages, which are James' athleticism and their offensive rebounding ability. Their superiority over the Spurs in offensive rebounding seems greater than it really is because the Cavs miss so many more shots than the Spurs do. Cleveland grabbed 278 more offensive rebounds during the regular year, but missed 351 more shots. Still, it's an advantage.
James has to attack the basket early in the shot clock and the Cavs have to crash the boards. Speeding up the game tends not to work against the Spurs -- they can beat you your way -- but more possessions, especially attacking possessions, mean more opportunities for Duncan to get in foul trouble, which is probably Cleveland's best hope.
And if James can get it going, as he did in Game 5 last week, he might just be able to outscore San Antonio's varied offense, especially if the Cavaliers are scooping up his rebounds.
There are two problems with this. One, I don't think the Cavaliers will try it. Two, even if it is their best hope and even if they do try it, I don't think it'll work.
For one thing, the Spurs will be much smarter and better than the Pistons were at getting the ball out of James' hands, frustrating him and shutting down his drives. For another, even if James is able to provide some Game 5-style fireworks, nobody can carry a team like that for a whole series. Not against a club as solid as the Spurs.
Cavs fans are preparing e-mails even as I type pointing out that Cleveland swept the season series from San Antonio, winning once in each building. They'll anticipate my argument that a couple of regular season games don't mean much by pointing out that I said the same thing before the Dallas-Golden State series, pooh-poohing the Warriors' three-game season sweep, and the Warriors dumped the Mavs in six.
Uh-huh. And the Pistons took three of four from the Cavaliers this year.
Anyone who wants to bet on Gregg Popovich getting outcoached by Mike Brown -- or anyone else -- the way Avery Johnson got outcoached by Don Nelson, step right up to the window.
Spurs in six, and I think I'm being generous. The Spurs sometimes lose interest for a game, and playing three straight at home might help the Cavs get an extra win. Probably not, but why not hope? I like the NBA Finals. I'd watch 'em over a Gilbert Gottfried infomercial for anything.
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Ducks win Stanley Cup [PERMALINK]
Speaking of infomercial-like ratings: Not many of us watched it, but the NHL sure knows how to celebrate a championship.
The Anaheim Ducks pounded the Ottawa Senators 6-2 in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals to secure not only the first NHL title for a team from California but the first for a club in the Pacific time zone, the first for one west of the Rockies.
Every year I'm struck by how cool the end of the Stanley Cup Finals is. The losing team has to stand around and wait while the winning team goes ape-crazy bananas. Then comes the traditional handshake, which everybody agrees is a groovy thing. Then, after the curtain-opening bestowal of the Conn Smythe Trophy for Most Valuable Player of the entire playoffs -- Ducks captain Scott Niedermayer took this one -- the Stanley Cup itself is brought out by its handlers.
It doesn't travel in a popemobile, but just about.
Commissioner Gary Bettman presents the Cup to the captain, who generally lifts it over his head and kisses it, as Niedermayer did Wednesday. His teammates, in a pecking order, each take a turn doing the same, the crowd going wild if it's a home game, as Thursday's was, each time a new player lifts the trophy overhead.
They all keep their sweaters on.
It's definitely more picturesque than the habit in other sports of peeling off jerseys -- though the soccer jersey-trading tradition is nifty -- and donning tacky-looking championship T-shirts and baseball caps on sale now at the team store. NHL teams do put the caps on, though.
There's a hastily assembled team photo with the Cup, which always makes me wonder: Whenever I'm in a group photo, even if the group is six people, it takes the group and the photographer 10 minutes to get everybody arranged just so. How is it that hockey teams can get themselves posed in 10 seconds?
Anyway it's all a great show, a nice blend of traditional ceremony and goofy-giddy improv. Now that it has played the Coast, maybe one of these years they'll take it to Canada.
Previous column: Baseball draft: 42 years of fascinating failure
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