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NBA Finals -- At the Halfway Point?

   by Al McMordie - 06/11/2007

Coming into the NBA Finals it was billed as a series of youth against the old veterans. After watching the first two games we should come up with a more appropriate moniker: Men against Boys. That’s what it’s been like, and my good friend, handicapper Bryan Leonard (who attended Game 2 with me in San Antone) also had the same impression. The first half of Game 2 spoke volumes: San Antonio shot 55%, the Cavs 26% as the Spurs led by 25. A daunting task awaits the Cavs: win all 3 at home and THEN try to win 1 of 2 in San Antonio.

Two of the top defensive teams are battling it out in the Finals. That’s no surprise. Defense in all sports often gets teams to the championship game. The key will be adjustments, and that’s where the Cavaliers have a bigger mountain to climb.

The playoffs are far more challenging to the West's squads, as they have the superior talent, having won 6 of the last 8 titles. No disrespect to the Cavaliers, but they had to beat Washington, New Jersey and Detroit to get here. The Spurs had to beat the Nuggets, Suns and Jazz, teams that are much better and offer contrasting and challenging styles.

In their playoff victory over the Pistons, the Cavs slowed the pace down and Pistons coach Flip Saunders was poor at making adjustments. Saunders, in desperation, used Nazr Mohammed in Game 6 even though the guy hadn’t played all series. He also kept double-teaming LeBron James, who was able to find the open man. Rookie Daniel Gibson was the beneficiary, scoring 31 points in Game 6. While that performance was off the charts, don’t forget Gibson was wide open too often because of Detroit’s double teaming.

San Antonio has so much better of a coaching staff and did things very differently in Game 1, coming at James from different angles and still rotating sufficiently to keep the Cavs from getting open looks from long range. The challenge for the Cavs as the series moves to Cleveland for three games this week is to find a way to make useful adjustments, but it’s not easy against this talented (and veteran) Spurs group.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will want sparkplug Tony Parker to stay aggressive. While Parker has significantly improved his mid-range shooting from two years ago, he's still drought-prone at times. After watching Parker kill them in Games 1 and 2, the Cavaliers will have to make adjustments to force Parker to shoot from outside rather than drive to the hoop for a lay-up or a quick pass to someone open down low. But that's easier said then done, since Parker is hitting his outside jumper with regularity now, and even made a 3-pointer on Sunday.

Another problem for the Cavs is on the boards (they've been out-rebounded in each game). During the regular season, Cleveland led the NBA in offensive rebounding with an average of 12.7 per game. The Cavaliers had only nine offensive boards in Game 1 of the Finals and were outscored 19-10 in second-chance points.

As good as James is at distributing the ball, individual Cavs players can sometimes go long stretches without getting a chance to shoot. The most famous example of that was in Game 5 against Detroit last series, when James scored the Cavs' final 25 points. LeBron was just 4-for-16 from the floor in Game 1, with four assists and six turnovers.

As I mentioned above, defense is always crucial and 81 might be the key number: In the first 4 meetings between these teams, the team that scored 81 points or less lost. As the series shifts to Cleveland this week, the Cavaliers will be happy to know that they are 37-12 SU, 26-22 ATS at home. However, note that the Spurs are 32-16 SU, 27-20 ATS on the road.
Can LeBron and his mates bounce back? James had a tough opener in the Finals, finishing with 14 points and six turnovers. Yet, he’s been good in bounce-back spots. In the opening game of the Cavaliers' second-round series against New Jersey, James missed 13 of 21 shots. The next game he scored 36 points. In the opener of the Eastern Conference finals against Detroit, James was limited to 10 points on 5 of 15 shooting. He continued to improve and tallied 48 points in a double-overtime victory in Game 5. Still, the West is clearly the more talented conference and even the NBA draft didn’t help: Both Greg Oden and Kevin Durant will be there in the fall. Good luck, as always...Al McMordie.

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