Taking Care of Business

The Spurs' airtight play in the Finals put Cavaliers star LeBron James--like a certain mafia don--on the verge of being silenced
June 17, 2007

The 2007 NBAFinals has a family feel. First, there's the kinship between the twostaffs--Cleveland Cavaliers coach Mike Brown worked for, and general managerDanny Ferry played for, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who learnedmany of his X's and O's at the elbow of Cavs assistant Hank Egan, his mentor atthe Air Force Academy.

More literally,between Games 1 and 2, a son, Ozmel, was born to Spurs forward Bruce Bowen andwife Yardley; another son, as yet unnamed, was on the way for Cleveland forwardLeBron James and girlfriend Savannah Brinson. "I'm expecting any day,"said James last Saturday. "Well, I'm not. That would be kind ofweird."

As James geared upfor Game 2 at the AT&T Center on Sunday night, the fortunes of anotherfamily weighed on him, too: The final episode of The Sopranos, which Savannahhad been instructed to TiVo, began just before James exchanged pregame shugswith the Spurs at center court. For the record, James believed (and hoped) thatTony would not meet his Maker.

At week's end,though, it was James and his crew who found themselves close to being whacked.After holding LeBron to 14 points in a series-opening 85-76 victory lastThursday, the Spurs bottled him up for three quarters of Game 2, building a29-point lead en route to a 103-92 win. (Game 3 was scheduled for Tuesday nightat Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.) It is no surprise that James failed toconquer a San Antonio defense that is far more synergistic than, and almost aslethal as, a certain New Jersey crime family. But that hardly made the dualsetbacks any more palatable for the Chosen One. (LeBron, not Tony.)

"We've beendown 2-0 before," James said on Sunday night, referring to the EasternConference finals, "so we have to find a way to bring the intensity that wedid in the fourth quarter tonight [when the Cavs outscored the home team 30-14]and carry it into Game 3." Brave words, but even James didn't soundfully convinced: Coming back against the determined Spurs will be a much tallerorder than taking four straight from the fractious Detroit Pistons.

Though guard ManuGinóbili rightly describes his team as "a good vanilla, not a boringvanilla," America has never developed a taste for the Spurs. The league hadhoped, though, that James's story¬†line--22-year-old superstar straps onthe armor and tries to lay siege to the three-time champs--would move theinterest dial. Well, James charged, San Antonio repelled him, and viewersremained unengaged. It wasn't just that The Sopranos buried (poor choice ofwords) Game¬†2, the former watched by more than 11 million people (based onovernight ratings), the latter by about 8¬†million; but Game¬†1 hadalso been a disaster, drawing only 9.2¬†million viewers.

In fact, you mighthave heard as much about Tony Parker's upcoming wedding to actress Eva Longoriaas you have about his play, which has been sterling. The Spurs' point guard hit25 of 43 shots (58.1%) in scoring a series-high 57 points over the first twogames, repeatedly slithering his slender 6' 2'' body into the lane despiteCleveland's stated objective to keep him out of it. James offered a commonsenseresponse when asked why it was so difficult to stem Parker's drives: "Ifevery team knew the answer, he wouldn't lead the league in points in thepaint." Much of the time Brown put the 6' 8'', 240-pound James on Parker inan attempt to bully him and limit his sight lines on passes. The Cavs weren'tthe first team to find that stratagem unsuccessful, and through two gamesParker was the odds-on favorite to be Finals MVP.

Though theFrenchman is primarily a slasher, six of his 13 field goals in Game 2 wereperimeter jumpers, one a three-pointer. His improved outside touch speaks tothe perspicacity of the Spurs, who brought in Chip Engelland as a shootingcoach before the 2005-06 season primarily to work with Parker. One of the firstthings Engelland noticed was that Parker had better form on his teardrop (thehigh-arcing floater he uses in the lane to shoot over big men) than he did onhis jumper. On the teardrop, his hand at release was straight (rather thancrooked) and his thumb was wide (rather than pinched), providing a more securegrip. "So we linked the teardrop to the jump shot," says Engelland,"and his outside touch improved."

Attention todetail also characterizes a San Antonio defense built on subtle andsplit-second reactions rather than on spectacular steals and shot blocking, adefense that moves, as Egan says, "like it's on a string." Even forwardTim Duncan's rejections are studies in positioning and balance rather thangaudy swattage--he often permits a driver to get a step on him, then taps theball away from behind, like a teacher letting a mischievous student know thathe can't get away with anything.

Constant doubleteams forced James to give up the ball out front in Game 1, so the Cavsbegan running him along the baseline and posting him up on Sunday, getting theball to him later but theoretically in a better position to do something. Thechange helped James a little, but he still looked uncomfortable in hitting onlynine of his 21 shots. With the 6' 7" Bowen bearing primary responsibility,the Spurs continued to double- and triple-team James, who scored 25 points butalso had six turnovers, all of them in the second half.

The success of SanAntonio's D begins with Popovich's insistence that team defense--48 minutes ofit--be played. The Spurs work on defensive drills deep into the postseason,"things that eighth-grade teams do," says assistant coach MikeBudenholzer. The day before Game 1, for example, they went through afour-on-four shell drill that emphasized defensive rotations; most teams dothat in the preseason and then forget about it.

That leads to adefensive accountability rare in the NBA, in which open shots are the enemy."We have a scheme that is set up to succeed," says backup point guardJacque Vaughn, "so when there is a breakdown, you will be singled out forfailure." Bowen joked that after his son was born at 9:19 a.m. lastSaturday, he arrived (still wearing his hospital I.D. bracelet) at the filmsession "just after they finished talking about everything I had done wrongin Game 1."

To the Spurs everypossession is a little game within itself, and all those little games areparamount. Let the opponent get a couple of easy baskets and Popovich willinvariably call a timeout, as he did early in the fourth quarter of Game 2when consecutive threes by Cavs guard Damon Jones cut the lead to 19. Themessage: Opposition runs are not O.K.; letting the other team's offense getinto a rhythm is not O.K.

Yes, the Spurshave two outstanding defenders in Duncan and Bowen, but the solid schemesaugment individual strengths. "Bruce is a great defender," saysCleveland guard Eric Snow, "but the biggest reason is that he has TimDuncan and a great team defensive concept behind him." A member of theCavs' staff, who asked for anonymity, elaborates by citing the Orlando Magic'sJanuary 2005 acquisition of Doug Christie, a perimeter defender in the mold ofBowen. "Christie didn't help them nearly as much as they thought becausethey didn't have a defensive system," says the staffer. "Any individualdefender is far less important than the system itself."

Then, too, thatsystem protects weaker individual defenders, such as Parker. Popovich noted thebirth of six-pound, 11-ounce Ozmel Bowen by saying that two miracles hadhappened that weekend--the other being that Parker had actually engaged inhelp-side defense in Game 1. (In truth, backup guard Brent Barry said that butcredited Popovich "because I'm trying to suck up to get playing time.")The fact that Parker can get overpowered by a strong offensive player is almostirrelevant because he will always have help.

Finally, executingeffective rotations is often more about covering up mistakes than making atextbook play. When a defender rotates to the wrong player it's up to, asPopovich puts it, "his buddy to cover for him." One of the best atdoing that is 36-year-old forward Robert Horry, who in Game 2 dashed fromside to side like a commuter in a frantic search for the correct train,finishing with an overstocked stat line that read 26 minutes, five points, ninerebounds, four assists and five blocks.

Not accounted forwere the times that Horry raced around the court to pick up potential openshooters. For instance, with San Antonio up 11 and about 1:30 remaining, Duncancame from under the basket to double James. Forced to give the ball up when hewould have preferred to shoot, James zipped a pass toward forward AndersonVarej√£o, but Horry, rotating to pick up Duncan's man, knocked it away, thentook off in mad pursuit. He dived for the ball at the sideline, upendingPopovich (who was not hurt) in the process. It almost didn't matter that Horrytipped it out-of-bounds and Cleveland maintained possession; the effort madethe statement.

The Cavs couldextract some hope from their comeback in Game 2, but, all things considered,the trip to San Antonio had been even rougher than expected for the young team,particularly for James, who shouldered the majority of the pressure as well asthe defensive attention. He seized upon any opportunity to discuss a subjectother than basketball, which is why he was so animated answering a questionabout The Sopranos, revealing his wish that Tony get away "and not worryabout nothing." But James knows that it's never that easy for the head of afamily, particularly when a worthy adversary has you in its sights.

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The league hoped James's story line would MOVE THEINTEREST DIAL. James charged, the Spurs repelled, and viewers remainedunengaged.

Parker has been able to slither his slender body INTOTHE LANE despite Cleveland's stated objective to keep him out of it.

PHOTOPhotograph by Greg Nelson FLOORSHOW
James and the rest of the Cavs could find no way to slow down Parker (withball).
PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH DOUBLETROUBLE
James had to deal with two--and sometimes even three--defenders every time hetouched the ball.
PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHPASSING IT ON Duncan (21), a three-time Finals MVP, may have to hand that honor to the quicksilver Parker this time around.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)