December 21, 2014

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Resilient Cavs must make some big changes

Terry Pluto
Associated Press
SAN ANTONIO — Too much Tony Parker. Too much Tim Duncan. Not enough LeBron James. The defense also rested way too soon.
For the Cavaliers, it was welcome to the NBA Finals.
Final score: Spurs 85, Cavaliers 76 in the opener of the best-of-seven series Thursday night at the AT&T Center.
It’s not a shock the Spurs won this game. They had more experience, had more rest and were playing at home, where they are 9-2 in the postseason.
They also are the superior team, with the core group going for its third NBA title in five years. Tim Duncan is after his fourth since 1999.
One Spurs fan held up a sign reading: “WITNESS THIS!”
There were three championship trophies under that headline.
Does that mean the Cavs have no chance?
If you have been paying attention to the Cavs this postseason, you should know the answer. They are a resilient group, and tend not to allow one poor performance to create a confidence hangover that sinks them in the next game.
With Game 2 in San Antonio on Sunday, the Cavs still have realistic hopes for a split on the road, but they’d better make some changes against a team that is so savvy, so sound defensively.
They have to defend the Spurs’ famed pick-and-roll play smarter. Too often, the Cavs had a guard and 7-foot-2 Zydrunas Ilgauskas chasing point man Parker 28 feet from the basket.
That allowed Duncan to saunter to the basket, catch a bounce pass from Parker and deliver a dunk or a layup. That happened five times in the first half. They would be better off sagging on Duncan, allowing Parker to take open 20footers.
Yes, Parker’s jumper has improved. But it’s not nearly as scary as his drives to the basket, where he’s the master of the snakelike layup in traffic — slithering through defenders and able to score with either hand.
Duncan is just Duncan, one of the greatest big men ever. He scores. He rebounds. He blocks shots. He then credits his teammates and goes home.
It’s no accident he has won the MVP award in the three NBA Finals in which he has played.
Parker had a game-high 27 points and seven assists. Duncan had 24 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks.
The Cavs pride themselves on rebounding and have been the best on the boards in the postseason, but the Spurs overwhelmed them 43-32 on this night.
Then there’s the James Question. Namely, the Cavs have to get him going. He was 4-of-16 from the field for 14 points. He did have seven rebounds to lead the Cavs but only four assists and was charged with six turnovers.
The Spurs have their own version of the LeBron Rules, and it’s as tough as anything James has ever faced.
It begins with Bruce Bowen, who received more votes for the NBA’s All-Defensive team than any other player. It’s his fourth year on the first-team All-NBA defense.
He’s 6-foot-7 and 200 pounds. While he joked before the series that he wished he had at least 40 more pounds to take on James, instead he had an extra 260 as Duncan often jumped out to join Bowen and double-team James.
The 6-foot-11 Duncan also is All-NBA on defense. He had four blocks in the first half, two on James. Duncan does it like a guy taking his socks out of the dryer. He doesn’t change expression. He barely seems to go on his tiptoes. He just puts his hand in the right spot at the right time, tipping the ball away before it reaches the rim.
Two players were able to take some advantage of this: Drew Gooden and Daniel Gibson.
Gooden scored 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting. He often was left open by Duncan, who concentrated on helping Bowen with James. Gibson, the hero in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, finished with a team-high 16 points on 7-of-9 shooting.
Yes, the Detroit Pistons are a good defensive team, but the Spurs are better, strong, taller and tougher. They used a lot of zone techniques so that James was prevented from finding easy openings to the basket. The Pistons also had no big man like Duncan, not only in his skilled offense, but also in his crafty defense and shot-blocking.
James was totally frustrated. When he did have an open shot, it was from at least 18 feet. James’ jumper is like sunshine in Akron — it comes and goes and seems to have a mind of it own.
He entered the fourth quarter with eight points on 2-of-12 shooting.
The play that demonstrated what James faced was at the end of the first quarter, when the Cavs were in their 1-4 set. It has James at the top of the key dribbling, the other Cavs spacing out for open shots. James tried to get to the basket. He dropped his shoulder and was whistled for charging.
He stared at the officials in utter agony and disbelief.
The Spurs were playing their version of a box-and-one. That means Bowen chased James everywhere, while the other four players were in a zone defense shaped a bit like a box. They always kept one eye on James, even when he didn’t have the ball.
At halftime, the Cavs trailed 40-35, not bad considering James was 0-for-7 from the field with only four points on foul shots.
Then came the third quarter, and the Cavs had their usual miseries. They were outscored 24-14. That put the Spurs in front 64-49 heading into the final period, and this game basically was over.
The Spurs obviously decided that if they were to lose on this night, it would be someone besides the Cavs star who would have to do the major damage.
The Cavs just didn’t have enough. Not on offense, not on defense, not on the boards. Now, they have two days to regroup, and they’ll need it.
Terry Pluto is a columnist for the Akron beacon Journal.