The Spurs pounded the Cavs into dust, winning by the respectable score of 103-92 only after a furious fourth-quarter rally by Cleveland, shrinking a 29-point lead down to eight at one point while the Spurs all but watched the "Sopranos" finale on their iPods. And I don't just mean the guys on the bench. The Spurs lead the series 2-0, with Game 3 Tuesday in Cleveland.
Maybe I just see everything from the vantage point of my hobbyhorses, but it looked to me like Brown and the Cavaliers gave this one away in the third minute of the first quarter, when LeBron James was sent to the bench with foul trouble after picking up his second.
I know what you're going to say: The Spurs ran away with the game while James was in the game, not on the bench.
The Spurs were leading 7-4 when James, helping on defense, foolishly slapped at the ball in Tim Duncan's hands, instead hitting his wrist and drawing his second foul with just over nine minutes left in the first quarter.
Brown, following coaching orthodoxy right over the cliff, sent his star to the folding chairs because he didn't want James to pick up his third foul, which would mean he'd be halfway to his sixth foul, which would mean he'd be disqualified, which would mean he might have to miss, oh, who knows, maybe nine minutes of game time!
Duncan hit both free throws for 9-4 and James sat for the rest of the quarter. Nine minutes. No need to foul out, LeBron. Your coach did it for you after you got your second foul. James ended up playing 38 minutes. He finished with 25 points, seven rebounds, six assists, six turnovers.
So here's your point: With James on the bench for the rest of the quarter, the Spurs only outscored the Cavaliers 19-13. They led by 11 at quarter's end. The rout wasn't really on until the second period, when James was back on the floor. A 10-3 run in the first three and a half minutes boosted the lead to 18. Except for that garbage-time comeback, the Cavs were never in the game again.
It's a good point. James was on the floor when the game got out of hand. But he was playing like a guy who'd just spent nine minutes of game time, 31 minutes of "Sopranos" time, sitting on the bench and biting his fingernails.
He'd started the game in aggressive mode. On Cleveland's first three possessions, he'd had a rebound and put-back and two drives to the basket. Those resulted in a foul -- though he missed both free throws -- and a weak-side rebound and put-back by Drew Gooden, left all alone as the Spurs converged on James.
Just to review: If the Cavs are going to have a prayer in this series, they need James to go off in every game. No telling if he was going to go off in this one, but he'd gotten off to a good start. The one sure thing is that no player can take over a game from the bench.
When James returned, he was out of sorts and off his feed. On the Cavs' first two possessions of the quarter, he hoisted up 20-foot jumpers without an apparent thought of going to the rim. Both missed badly. Both times the Spurs got the rebound, dribbled upcourt, gave the ball to Tim Duncan and scored. All of a sudden it was 32-17, and 23-13 since James' benching.
Thirty-one minutes he sat. An NBA halftime is 15 minutes in the regular season, 20 in the playoffs, and the players spend several minutes at the end of it getting warmed up again and practicing their shot. James, accustomed to playing all but a few stolen rest minutes every night, had to come off the bench cold. That's a skill, and it's unreasonable to expect a guy who's been a starter every day since pee-wee ball to have it.
After his two bricks James didn't touch the ball on two of Cleveland's next three possessions. On the other, he traveled on a fast break. On the sixth possession of the quarter he was guarded closely by Bruce Bowen at the three-point line, picked up his dribble and sent a cross-court skip pass to Donyell Marshall, who launched one of his patented missed 3-pointers.
By the seventh possession it was 38-19 Spurs and the game was over. Since James had come out after his second foul: 29-15. A 14-point advantage in a little over 12 minutes. That's a rout.
James was just starting to wake up now. He at least started a drive to the basket before pulling up and missing a 15-footer, but he drew a foul and hit one of two free throws. Then the next two times down the floor he threw down a slam-dunk on a fast break and got fouled on a drive to the basket, making both foul shots this time. It was a 5-0 run for the Cavs, and it brought them to within 14.
It was bailing out the Titanic with a Dixie cup. It didn't matter. The Spurs shrugged, went on a 12-1 run and settled in to see if Tony would survive the last show.
There just wasn't any way. The Cavs have to do everything right to stay even with the Spurs and have a chance to steal the game at the end. If they're going to sit their best player down and spot San Antonio 14 points before he comes back and shakes the cobwebs loose, it doesn't really matter what happens once he's back on his game.
I'm making this sound like the Spurs were barely there, like Brown benching James was the key to San Antonio winning. It wasn't. San Antonio is the vastly superior team. The Spurs were probably going to win anyway. Brown benching James was the key to Cleveland having no chance.
With James on the floor for 48 minutes or close to it, the Cavs are a good Eastern Conference team that just might pull an upset over the Spurs, this being a crazy world and all. When he's on the bench, they're approximately the Milwaukee Bucks. He shouldn't be on the bench unless he needs a minute or two of rest or the rules prohibit him from being in the game.
Mike Brown is way too smart a guy for me to have to explain this. He apprenticed under Gregg Popovich. Me? Not so much.
The Cavs are taking courage from the last two NBA Finals, each of which started with the home team winning twice. Two years ago the Spurs routed the Detroit Pistons in Game 2, and wouldn't you know that game included a futile fourth-quarter comeback by the Pistons. The parallels are eerie! Or Erie maybe.
Except that the Pistons that year looked a lot closer to the level of the Spurs than the Cavaliers do this year. They had a couple of bad nights while the Spurs played exceedingly well. They told themselves that they could right the ship when they got home, and that's what happened. Detroit won two in a row and sent the series to seven games before losing.
Last year the Dallas Mavericks beat the Miami Heat in the first two games, and with Shaquille O'Neal looking old, Dwyane Wade looking ordinary and the Mavs winning Game 2 in a rout, things looked as dire for the Heat as they do now for the Cavs.
Miami won four straight.
There's also the Spurs' well-documented habit of winning the first two games, then letting their opponent back into the series.
So sure, there's reason for Cleveland to hope. From here, the 2007 Spurs look better than the 2005 Spurs did, with a healthy Duncan hitting on all cylinders and Tony Parker having evolved into a superstar attacking point guard. Throw in the Spurs' shooting ability and seemingly endless depth and -- well, hope is a nice thing to have, even if that's all you have.
It's not quite all the Cavaliers have. They also have LeBron James. He's probably not enough, but he's certainly not if he's sitting down.
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