Unlike his Finals counterpart, Popovich is one of the NBA's most experienced and successful coaches. He has guided the Spurs to one of the best records in the league over his 11 seasons, and has three championships in three tries to show for it. Popovich knows how to motivate his players, and won't be afraid to turn to seldom-used players if he needs them (just ask Steve Kerr in 2005). In a complete reversal from two years ago when Popovich squared off against his mentor in Larry Brown, he now must go up against his former pupil in Brown (and his ex-longtime assistant Hank Egan). There will be no secrets on either side, but Popovich's experience rates him a significant edge.
In his first two seasons as an NBA coach, Brown has led the Cavs to consecutive 50-win seasons and the franchise's first trip to the Finals. Not bad for a 37-year-old who never played in the league and got his start as a video coordinator. The former San Antonio assistant has come under fire in Cleveland for his team's stodgy offense and for some strategic miscues, but he has made the Cavs one of the league's best defensive teams. He also knows the Spurs' system well from his three years on the bench in San Antonio. But will Brown's lack of experience come into play, as it seemed to for Dallas' Avery Johnson in last year's Finals?
Ginobili is a legit All-Star who can score, pass, defend and make big plays when his team needs it most. The 6-5 swingman likely will be a huge factor in this series, since the Cavs' length inside figures to cause problems for Duncan and Parker. Ginobili will need to hit shots from outside, and use his quick hands to help frustrate James on defense, or the Spurs could have problems. Robert Horry, with his six championship rings and history of big shots, is the Spurs' X-factor off the bench. He and Brent Barry provide floor spacing, while Elson and point guard Jacque Vaughn are solid backups at their respective positions.
The bench has played a key role in the Cavs' march to the Finals, and it will need to come up big again for Cleveland to have any chance against the Spurs. Varejao could be an X-factor with his ability to hit the offensive boards and draw charges. Like the Spurs' Bowen, he has a knack for getting in the heads of foes. Gibson has the ability to spread the floor and knock down shots, but can he handle the Finals pressure and stay in front of Parker on defense? Donyell Marshall and Damon Jones are veterans who can knock down outside shots, while Eric Snow provides defense, experience and toughness.
The Spurs finished with a 31-10 mark at the AT&T center in the regular season, but one of the losses came at the hands of the Cavs, who defeated the Spurs 88-81 on Nov. 3. With the Cavs also enjoying a strong home court edge (they were 30-11 at the Quicken Loans Arena) and the city of Cleveland fired up about its first trip to the Finals, the Spurs need to take care of their home court. If they lose even one of the first two, it could get dicey.
The Cavs ranked 29th out of 30 teams in free throw shooting during the regular season, hitting just 69.5 percent. Even James managed to convert just 69.8 percent. (The Spurs, a team that historically struggles from the line, finished 17th.) With points expected to be at a premium against the Spurs' defense, Cleveland can't afford to not cash in at the stripe. The good news for the Cavs is that they have shot much better in the playoffs (74.4 percent).
The Spurs enter on a roll, having won 12 of 16 in this postseason while eliminating the Nuggets, Suns and Jazz. With so many players who have won either NBA rings or world championships, they also have an edge in experience. Having lost their two regular-season meetings with the Cavs, they have no excuse to overlook their East challengers. The Spurs also seem to be motivated by the national attention that LeBron and his Cavs are going to get in this series. Throw in the home court advantage, and San Antonio should be in good shape.
The Cavs also come in hot, having gone 12-4 in the postseason with series wins over the Wizards, Nets and Pistons, and riding an emotional high from their first Finals berth. As the underdogs, they will have no real pressure and should be able to play loose. Meanwhile, their 2-0 regular-season mark against the Spurs should give them confidence. If they can take either Game 1 or 2 in San Antonio, it could get interesting as the series would shift back to what it sure to be a boisterous Cleveland crowd. But the Cavs are also a young team with almost no Finals experience, so they will have to adjust quickly to the intense spotlight.
Both teams feature stout defenses that will make for low-scoring games that could come down to the wire. Duncan and James will have their moments. The difference is that San Antonio has other proven playmakers in Parker and Ginobili while Cleveland has ... who exactly? LeBron is good enough to win a game or two by himself, but the Spurs are too good as a team to let him do it four times.