John Smallwood | As if on 'Q,' Spurs take overwhelming edge

Posted: June 13, 2007

CLEVELAND - The Quicken Loans Arena rocked with a swagger that made the nearby Rock and Rock Hall of fame jealous.

With Cleveland hosting an NBA Finals game for the first time ever, Cavaliers fans enthusiastically embraced the "Rise Up" challenge that has become this franchise's rallying call.

The "Q" was loud. The "Q" was electric. The "Q" was boisterous.

But nothing that happened in the "Q" last night was anything that the San Antonio Spurs haven't seen. You don't win three NBA Championships in 8 years without playing in a few extremely hostile arenas.

"Well, I'd like to think [his players] gained the ability to concentrate and focus by now," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said before Game 3. "Most of the core people have been here for 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."

Popovich isn't the type of coach who looks for excuses, especially one as superficial as crowd craziness.

"All the hoopla around [Game 3] doesn't really affect them. If we play poorly tonight, it won't be because of the crowd. If we play well, I don't think it'll be because we tuned the crowd out purposefully."

The Spurs didn't play particularly well - not that it mattered.

Early foul trouble for Tim Duncan, the first average performance from Tony Parker, and an almost scoreless night from Manu Ginobili wasn't enough to keep the Spurs from putting a stranglehold on the NBA Finals with an ugly, 75-72 victory.

With the overmatched Cavaliers down, 3-0, and one game away from elimination, a batch of enthusiasm the size of Lake Erie won't be enough to bring them back from the abyss.

The only uncertainty is whether the Spurs sweep their way to their fourth NBA championship.

"That would be nice," Parker said, "but it's going to be hard. It's going to take a lot of effort and a lot of energy. I know Cleveland. They have a lot of pride, and they're going to play with a lot more energy in Game 4."

That might get the Cavaliers a face-saving victory, but as far as bringing Cleveland its first sports championship since 1964, that won't happen.

As much as Philadelphia suffers from its 24-year championship drought, it will still have one leg up on Cleveland.

"Everybody has to still believe," said LeBron James, who has failed to impose his will on his first NBA Finals. "You know, [Game 4] is the first of four games. We've dug ourselves a big hole. We have to come out aggressive and just continue to play hard. We have to come out and win four games in a row."

That simply won't happen.

Realistically, the Cavaliers' best shot at winning a game was last night, with the enthusiasm of the entire state of Ohio fueling their effort.

Offensively, San Antonio couldn't have played much worse. After combining to average 72.5 points over the first two games, the Spurs' big three of Duncan (14 points), Parker (17) and Ginobili (3) combined for only 34 points.

But San Antonio went back to the thing it's always relied on to win championships - suffocating defense.

James again scored 25, but shot only 9-for-23 from the floor. As in the first two games, he was hounded by the aggressive defense of Bruce Bowen.

Cleveland shot only 36.7 percent from the floor and was a miserable 3-for-19 on three-point attempts.

"Both teams played pretty good defense, I think," Popovich said, "and that's what the night was all about. We're trying to stop LeBron and trying to stop some of the three-point shooters.

"They tried to stop Manu and Tony. We ended up being fortunate enough to win the game, so we're thrilled about it.

"I think I can honestly say that these three games is the best defense we have played all season. It's been back-to-back-to-back without a doubt."

All the adjustments have been made.

James and the Cavaliers have thrown everything they have at San Antonio, and the Spurs sit 48 minutes from their fourth NBA title and third in the last 5 years.

Before last night, the Cavs were 7-1 at home in the playoffs, but even the "Q" and every voice in Cleveland were not enough to derail the San Antonio Express.

"If I say something [about the atmosphere in the Quicken Loans Arena], then it will be very loud and they'll scream about me [in Game 4]," Parker said. "I don't think it was as loud as Utah and Denver." *

Send e-mail to

smallwj@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/smallwood.

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