Spurs one away from finishing Cavs

Posted: June 13, 2007

CLEVELAND - Larry Hughes, trying to play through a torn plantar fascia in his left foot, stood as a symbol of the daunting challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers faced in the NBA Finals. Down 0-2 to the San Antonio Spurs, they were all being stretched toward a breaking point.

Many of the Cavs fans had been able to watch Game 2 on the in-house screens in Quicken Loans Arena in HD-3D. They watched wearing 3D glasses the way a previous generation had once watched the forgettable "House of Wax." In terms of style and entertainment value, this was worse. Much worse.

This was fierce but ugly and disjointed, quickly becoming a test of will rather than skill. The Spurs let us know once again that their will is honed of steel. As bad as things appeared to get, even with Tim Duncan going scoreless in the second and third quarters, even with explosive sub Manu Ginobili going 0-for-7 from the floor, even with Robert Horry contributing just three points, they remained unflappable. They won, 75-72, building an overwhelming 3-0 advantage in the championship series.

"I think I can honestly say that these three games [have been] the best defense we've played all season," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.

We are, you should pardon the expression, all witnesses. We witnessed the Cavs being limited to 36.7 percent from the floor, including 3-for-19 from three-point distance. At the same time, the Spurs' Bruce Bowen not only shadowed Cavs star LeBron James most of the evening but came up with 13 points and nine rebounds of his own.

"What a yeoman effort on his part," Popovich said. "I just think he was fantastic from beginning to end, and I think he really set the tone for our team."

Duncan was no less effusive, saying, "Brucie was unbelievable tonight. He did everything for us . . . You can't say enough about him. He'll get it done, and it doesn't matter if he gets one shot or eight shots. He's going to be in the same place at the same time. He's going to do the same thing. That's what defines our team, what he does."

And before you ask, no NBA team has ever come back from an 0-3 deficit to win a title.

But don't suggest that the Cavs, going in last night, had the option of wearing rose-colored glasses, hoping against hope that, with the possibility of three consecutive home games in the 2-3-2 format they, too, could hold serve. Their only choice was to don blinders, forcing themselves to narrow their focus.

Their only focus now is to try to extend the series beyond tomorrow night's Game 4. Amazingly, they came incredibly close to stealing this one on the final play. James got off a three-pointer as he was grabbed by Bowen. But there was no whistle and the shot missed. Could it have been a four-point play? We'll never know.

James appeared to be questioning referee Bob Delaney after the final buzzer, but when asked about the situation, James said: "Incidental contact. It didn't affect my shot. I had a good look at it and I missed."

It took Ginobili only three points, on free throws in the last 10.4 seconds, to provide the margin of victory. Tony Parker finished with 17 points and Duncan 14 points and nine rebounds. The Spurs drained 10 of 19 triples, with Bowen hitting four of five and Brent Barry three of four.

With Hughes hobbled, it was time for a change. Probably past time. Coach Mike Brown inserted rookie Daniel "Boobie" Gibson, shooting 13-for-22 with no turnovers in nearly 60 minutes of the first two games, in the starting lineup. Hughes and backup forward Ira Newble went to the inactive list; veteran David Wesley and rookie Shannon Brown were activated, even though they figured not at all in the game plan. Damon Jones, rather than Eric Snow, became the first guard off the bench. Gibson was hardly the answer, shooting 1-for-10 and scoring two points.

The Cavs' support issues are one thing. The effectiveness of James is quite another. He was a solitary pregame figure amid a sea of electronic media and league and Cavs staff preparing everything courtside, shooting from 6:10 to 6:41 p.m. He shot 9-for-23, but finished with 25 points, seven assists and eight rebounds.

"We have to come out and try to win four straight games," James said.

Snow, the 12th player in league history to appear in the Finals with three different teams (Seattle, 1996; 76ers, 2001), said the Spurs "came out and sort of smacked you in the mouth, and before you could wake up they were gone."

"Sometimes," Snow said, "you get that blow, you've got to shake it off, come back and deliver some yourself."

Instead, Snow is suddenly in position to join Max Zaslofsky, Larry Foust and Sam Perkins as the only players to appear in the Finals with three different teams and not win a title.

This was the 11th time in the 2-3-2 format that the home team was up 2-0; in nine of the 10 previous series, that team won the championship. The Cavs rallied from 0-2 to defeat the Detroit Pistons in the 2-2-1-1-1 format of the Eastern finals, but no team has ever fallen behind 0-2 and won two series in the same year.

History also says the Spurs are going for their third title in 5 years, their fourth in 9. Popovich does not worry about their mental approach.

"Well, I'd like to think they gained the ability to concentrate and focus by now," Popovich said. "Most of the core people have been here a while, so they've been in a lot of situations, they've been in a lot of loud arenas and they're able to just concentrate on playing the game. All the hoopla around it doesn't really affect them."

At the same time, the Cavs are painfully aware that they can't simply rely on a magic carpet ride by James. The overall plan had not changed: To have a chance, they had to tighten their defensive rotations against Duncan, try to keep the ball out of Parker's hands, somehow allow the Spurs fewer offensive rebounds and cut down the number of wide-open corner three-point attempts.

The plan hasn't worked yet. *

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