SAN ANTONIO — If only the Cleveland Cavaliers could have a do-over, especially for the first quarter. That’s because the Cavs made a terrific comeback, outscoring San Antonio 30-14 in the fourth period Sunday night. That was enough to get the Spurs shaking in their boots.
Still, the bottom line was San Antonio 103, Cavaliers 92.
That gave the Spurs a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
For the Cavs, it was the sad start that plagued them all night.
Perhaps it began with coach Mike Brown leaving Larry Hughes in the starting lineup. Hughes has been suffering from plantar fasciitis for two weeks. It’s a serious foot injury, and Hughes is a player who relies on his legs to be effective.
To compensate, it wasn’t Hughes who was defending Spurs dynamic and slithery point guard Tony Parker. It was LeBron James.
Why was this a disaster?
l If Hughes is a point guard and he’s too hurt to defend Parker, he should not play.
l If Hughes is hurting, he also can’t drive to the basket. So he can’t take on his main defensive assignment, nor does he demand much attention on offense. All he can do is shoot jumpers, and those shots often look like a paper airplane in a hurricane — wildly off target.
l Yes, James is the Cavs’ premier athlete, but you don’t want him chasing Parker. That causes two problems: James spends too much energy on defense, leading him to commit fouls.
l Hughes was on Bruce Bowen, the Spurs’ defensive specialist who spends his time on offense standing in the corner, waiting to catch a pass and shoot a 3-pointer. He may be the easiest player to cover. So Hughes was giving the Cavs nothing on either end of the floor.
l Brown had Hughes on the court for 20 minutes in which he went scoreless, shooting zip-for-5. It was so bad, that once when Parker was matched against Hughes, the sneaky Spurs guard threw a bounce pass between the legs of Hughes to Tim Duncan.
l Three minutes into the game, James was on the bench with two fouls. They were not committed on Parker, but in trying to help against Tim Duncan. Did the matchup with Parker have anything to do with it? It sure didn’t help as Parker and Duncan often work a two-man pick-and-roll together.
Not all of this is Brown’s fault, but he looked like a desperate coach in his first NBA Finals facing his mentor. At one point in the first quarter, he had Snow, Hughes, Sasha Pavlovic, Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgauskas on the court.
Who from that group is supposed to create a shot? After James, the team’s best at doing that in the postseason has been Daniel Gibson. He was on the bench, too.
THE TRUTH: Gibson has to start Game 3 in Cleveland. Most fans already know that. Gibson had 15 points Sunday, nine in the fourth quarter.
MORE TRUTH: Brown seems worried about how to deal with Hughes, instead of facing the obvious: The guard is a liability right now. Hughes is in the foxhole of denial. Before Game 2, he said he only guarded Parker four times in the opener. Not true. He also said, “I only played 23 minutes. That’s not enough time to get anything done as far as figuring out and adjusting to what the game brings.”
EVEN MORE TRUTH: The numbers don’t lie. In the two games of this series, Hughes has been on the court 43 minutes. He has scored two points, shooting 1-of-10 from the field. He has five rebounds, two assists and has not been to the foul line. That’s enough time to get something — anything — done.
TERRIBLE TRUTH: At the half, the Cavs were down 58-33. They had been destroyed on the boards, 30-19. They were shooting 27 percent. They looked like some of those overmatched high school teams facing St. Vincent-St. Mary with James.
As Brown said of the Spurs before Game 2: “When you start winning ... it gives you an inner confidence that’s unbelievable ... it makes you feel like you can just take the life out of individuals or out of teams.”
Until the fourth quarter, the Cavs were dead men staggering. It was not that they quit, but you could see the pressure sucking out their sense of what brought them to the finals. The defensive determination, the rebounding, the knack of keeping the game close, it all wilted under the heat of the Spurs.
James sat out nearly all of the first quarter with the two fouls — probably not a great idea, either, because the three-time NBA champion Spurs are good enough to take control of a game like this at home and put their jaws around it like a pit bull with his favorite bone.
When James returned to action, you could see him urgently trying to bring his team back. Time and time again, he drove to the basket. He drew some fouls, but he was feeling the game slipping away. He even air-balled a free throw in the second period.
By the half, he had 13 tough points, shooting 4-of-11 from the field, 5-of-9 at the foul line. He kept pushing and finished with 25 points as the Cavs played a determined fourth quarter.
Now they return home for Game 3 on Tuesday. If Brown and the Cavs don’t make some changes, this series will be over soon.
Terry Pluto is a columnist for the Akron Beacon Journal.