LeBron James’ first meeting with San Antonio this season stood in stylistic contrast to the precise and one-sided 2014 Finals, but it still ended in defeat.
A choppy, lax contest between the Cavaliers and Spurs came down to the final seconds, with the defending champs using a 7-3 closing push to sneak out a 92-90 road win. James, who was limited to just two fourth-quarter points, allowed the game to escape in the final moments. There was James seeking to push the tempo in search of a game-tying or game-winning basket. Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan shadowed his every move until the ball kicked free before James ever had a chance to make the play.
The loss wasn’t lopsided or humiliating, even with his late-game miscue, but it had to feel a bit familiar to James. Kawhi Leonard (12 points, 10 rebounds, four steals) made him work from tip to buzzer, and James shot just 6-for-17 while committing five turnovers. Boris Diaw (19 points, seven assists, six rebounds) played the role of crucial X-factor and match-up nightmare. Duncan scored with relative ease inside against frontline defenders who aren’t really equipped to handle him. San Antonio’s depth advantage played out as expected, even though Tiago Splitter, Patty Mills, Marc Bellineli and Matt Bonner all sat out due to injuries or illness.
And, in perhaps the greatest frustration, Cleveland’s “Big 3” was unable to dictate the game’s terms. James’ star counterparts simply didn’t provide enough help. Kyrie Irving (20 points on 7-for-15 shooting and two assists) had his moments, but he was hardly dominant. Kevin Love (10 points on 4-for-12 shooting and 11 rebounds) lost his matchup with Diaw and just wasn’t as engaged as you would expect of a player his caliber in such an anticipated contest between contenders.
Frankly, the Cavaliers in their current form just aren’t a particularly fearsome foe for the Spurs. Two of the Heat’s biggest bugaboos -- soft interior defense and a lack of depth -- have become recurring nightmares for James with the Cavaliers. Through Wednesday, Cleveland ranked dead last in the NBA by allowing its opponents to shoot 65.8 percent from within five feet. (Last season, Miami ranked No. 17).
San Antonio’s offensive efficiency has taken a step back this season, and the Spurs didn’t reach the true “beautiful game” heights against the Cavaliers they repeatedly showed during the 2014 playoffs. Still, even without Splitter, a nice basket-area scoring threat, the Spurs succeeded in dissecting the Cavaliers’ interior. Duncan remains a lead option, as he scored four baskets deep in the paint in the game’s first 28 minutes. San Antonio was then able to switch things up by pulling Anderson Varejao, Cleveland’s only big man with length, away from the hoop to the high post and then running cutters into the plentiful open space behind him.
The depth disparity between the two teams wasn’t comical. San Antonio’s reserves outscored Cleveland’s 26-17, but it was still noticeable. Entering Wednesday’s action, Cleveland ranked No. 29 in bench scoring. (Last season, Miami ranked No. 23). The Cavaliers’ most reliable reserve, Tristan Thompson, will struggle to stay on the court if both teams advance to the Finals. He will struggle mightily to score over the top of the Duncan/Splitter pairing and doesn’t stand much chance of keeping up with the floating Diaw. Plus, you can almost hear San Antonio’s coaching staff licking its lips at the thought of Dion Waiters attempting to take over in June.
If there’s a new challenge for James, though, it’s the step backwards in team continuity that he’s taken since arriving in Cleveland from Miami. Some of that is the relative inexperience of his teammates, even Irving and Love. Some of that is the limited amount of time Cavaliers GM David Griffin has had to mold a full roster. And some of that is a lack of shared repetitions. All of those issues have surfaced and resurfaced during Cleveland’s 5-5 start to the season. They all surfaced again in crunch time on Wednesday, exposed by a San Antonio “Big 3” that has worked out all the kinks in more than a decade spent playing together.
With fewer than 30 seconds remaining and San Antonio clinging to a one-point lead, the Spurs brilliantly picked at the Cavaliers’ weak spots. Parker stationed himself at the right wing, Duncan occupied the high post and Ginobili, as always, was in motion. Varejao had to track Duncan, putting the pressure on rookie guard Joe Harris, a second-round pick, to keep the ball away from Ginobili.
All it took was a quick turn of the head and it was over. Ginobili deked right like he wanted an entry pass from Parker, Harris turned the wrong way for a brief instant and Parker moved the ball to Duncan who threaded a beautiful pass to Ginobili toward an unguarded hoop. Harris never stood a chance. Love was tied up attending to Diaw on the weakside, and Ginboili was free to finish a layup that would prove to be the winning margin. A game-winning play, made to look easy.
“We're still trying to get ourselves together,” Duncan said in his post-game ESPN interview, after finishing with 19 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks. “We're not playing great ball right now.”
San Antonio’s “not great” ball still proved sufficient to top Cleveland’s unexceptional play. The defining concern for James, however, is whether the Cavaliers’ best, sure to take months to form, will be enough to keep up with the Spurs once their missing pieces return and once the intensity gets turned up to 11 for the postseason.
While both organizations have plenty of work to do before another Finals matchup can come to fruition, James was reminded what a formidable obstacle the Spurs represent. His latest ring chase isn’t all that different from Wednesday’s final seconds: despite all of James’ individual twists and turns, Duncan, Ginobili and company are still right there, happily standing in the way.