The Associated Press
SAN ANTONIO — LeBron James may be the star of the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the San Antonio Spurs know better than to ignore the other four players on the court.
“They wouldn’t be in the finals without LeBron, we wouldn’t be in the finals without Tim Duncan,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said Sunday. “That goes without saying. But they still would not be in the finals, nor would we, if we didn’t each have our supporting casts. Everybody else has to fit.”
San Antonio was 0-2 against Cleveland during the regular season. The Spurs lost their home opener to the Cavs, plus their January matchup in Cleveland, where the NBA Finals will arrive for the first time later this month.
The Spurs held James to 19 points in the second meeting, but the Cavs put three other players in double figures in their 82-78 victory. Two other players scored eight points.
“We lost to them twice this season. They’ve been playing great,” Duncan said. “They’re on a high right now, playing with a lot of confidence. And they’re going to be a tough opponent. We’re going to have to really come out and shake this rust off quick this first game and really try to jump on them.”
After beating the Utah Jazz in five games for the Western Conference championship, the Spurs will have had a full week off by Thursday’s start to the NBA Finals in San Antonio.
Cleveland wrapped up the Eastern Conference championship on Saturday in Game 6 against the Detroit Pistons. James scored 20 points in that game, but it was rookie Daniel Gibson’s 31-point performance that stole the show.
“Teams get to finals and teams win championships, and their team fits,” Popovich said.
So do the Spurs. Their top three scorers, Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, have been together for the Spurs’ last two championship runs, in 2003 and 2005. Duncan is healthy and said he’s playing better basketball this year than in the last three. And the team turned midseason struggles around to take off on a 13-game winning streak and compile a 23-6 record after the All-Star break.
Still, the turnaround James has led in Cleveland over his four seasons there is what’s grabbed the attention.
“I’m just hoping every once in a while they throw the Spurs in there, in between LeBron highlights, that’d be nice,” Duncan said Sunday.
The experienced Spurs are going for their fourth championship in nine seasons. Duncan has been around for all three.
“I’m not sure how rare they think it is since they’ve been there quite often considering their young ages and time in the league,” Popovich said. “But they know it’s the finals and that would take care of any possible complacency I would think.”
San Antonio held opponents to just over 90 points a game during the regular season, leading the league. Cleveland was fifth, holding opponents to about 93 points.
“Cleveland’s an excellent defensive team, they kind of snuck up on everybody. When you talk about defense people mention the Pistons and the Bulls this year, and Houston and San Antonio and that kind of thing. Dallas became a good defensive team under Avery (Johnson),” Popovich said. “But Cleveland is right in that category with everybody else, it just hasn’t been noticed yet.”
Popovich has reason to compliment the Cavs’ defense. It’s largely the same as San Antonio’s.
Cleveland coach Mike Brown is one of several members of the Cavaliers organization, including general manager Danny Ferry and assistant coach Hank Egan, who used to be with the Spurs. Brown worked under Popovich as an assistant for three years earlier this decade.
“This is going to pretty much be a situation where everybody knows what everybody’s going to do,” Popovich said. “There aren’t going to be any secrets here, that’s for sure.”