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NBA Finals Fever

   by Bryan Leonard - 06/03/2007

There was a lot of gnashing of teeth in several cities at the most recent NBA draft. Teams were tanking it to get a shot at Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. If you ever wondered how important one superstar is to turning around the fortunes of a basketball team, look at Tim Duncan, Shaq, Michael Jordan and LeBron James.

James left little debate to that in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals with a spectacular 48 points, leading the Cavs to an improbable double OT victory at Detroit. Where would the Cavs be if four years ago the ping-pong balls hadn’t fallen their way? Not in the 2007 ECF!

It was memorable, one of the greatest performances in playoff history. King James scored Cleveland’s last of 25 points and 29 of his team's last 30 overall, including everything in the two overtimes. James swished several, often falling away from the rim, releasing the ball just over the finger tips of Detroit's star defender, Tayshaun Prince. “This was the single best game I've ever seen at this level in this atmosphere, hands down,'' Cavs coach Mike Brown said. “I don't know what he can't do.''

Just because Games 4 and 5 went over the total, don’t think the style of play has altered much. James is attacking the basket more, but Cleveland is still playing a swarming, choking defense. They held Detroit to 41% shooting in Game 4 and 42% shooting in Game 5, the latter at Detroit. Cleveland started 10-5 under the total in the playoffs.

Basketball fans aren’t the only ones watching high flying King James and smiling. So are the San Antonio Spurs, a rested, veteran team watching the Pistons and Cavs knock each other silly. The Spurs had little trouble rolling over the Jazz in 5 games. Utah basically packed it in for the 5th game, getting blown out at San Antonio.

The East may have won the NBA title last season, but the West has still won 6 of the last 8 titles. And this San Antonio group has won titles in 1999, 2003, 2005 and now they’re back in the Finals again. In fact, Duncan and the Spurs have never lost when reaching the Finals. Robert Horry is making his seventh trip to the NBA Finals, while Michael Finley is making his first.

The Spurs are accustomed to having a lengthy layoff before the Finals. They had a similar seven-day break before facing Detroit in 2005. In their first trip to the Finals in 1999, they had nine days off while waiting for the New York Knicks to close out the Indiana Pacers. In both cases, the Spurs went on to win the first two games of the series at home.

"I think we just want to do everything we can practice-wise to stay sharp so that our execution is at the level that it is at now," Gregg Popovich said. "We don't want to go into Cleveland or Detroit and be 70 percent of what we are now. So practices will have to be intense. We will have to hope we don't get an injury. But to not practice to not get an injury would be counterproductive."

So how did the Spurs match up with the Pistons and Cavs during the regular season? They swept the Pistons, 90-89 and 90-81, but the Cavaliers swept them, 82-78 and 88-81. Yes, that’s plenty of defense, going 3-1 under the total.

LeBron James has given Bruce Bowen difficulty. The Cavaliers are 3-1 against them under coach Mike Brown and this season ended a 16-game losing streak in San Antonio that dated to 1988. "Cleveland is a carbon copy of us," Brent Barry said. "People talk about them being the San Antonio of the East and they certainly know our staff well and the things we try to do."

The Spurs topped the Pistons in 7 games in the Finals in 2005, so it’s either a rematch or a chance for the new kid on the block to test the big stage. James is only 22-years old. “I'm banged up, I'm winded, I'm fatigued,'' James said after Game 5. “I'm everything.'' Yes, he is!

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