Following a career-defining 48-point-performance in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, LeBron James led his Cleveland Cavaliers to a stirring series upset over the Detroit Pistons and into the NBA Finals. Awaiting them are the three-time champion Spurs, who made quick work of the Utah Jazz, dispatching them in the Western Conference Finals in five games.
None of this is too surprising to Hustle and Flow, which predicted a Cavs vs. Spurs Finals before the regular season began. “If the Spurs aren’t careful, the battle for Tim Duncan’s fourth championship ring could quickly turn into a coronation for King James,” we wrote back in October. “Spurs over Cavs in seven.”
The Spurs opened their season at home last November with a lackluster 88-81 loss to the Cavs, punctuated by James’s nasty dunk over Tim Duncan, a photo of which hangs in LeBron’s locker to this day. After the contest, several Spurs were quick to praise the young superstar. “He’s so strong and has so much power going to the basket that it’s hard to stop him,” Manu Ginobili said after the game. “LeBron’s incredible,” added Tim Duncan. “Another great game tonight for him, he’s got so many weapons. And he shot the ball really well tonight, which people feel is kind of his weakness.”
Even Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich got into the act. “LeBron is fantastic,” offered Pop. “He’s a future Hall of Famer. What a physical specimen he is and that’s really the least of his attributes. He is blessed with great size and speed and quickness and all those things, it’s obvious to everybody. But he’s smart, he knows how to play the game, help his teammates, he knows the situation on the court. He’s special.”
The two teams met again in January, resulting in another disappointing loss for the Spurs. Part of San Antonio’s problems with the Cavs stems from Cleveland’s organizational familiarity with the Spurs. Cleveland General Manager Danny Ferry and Head Coach Mike Brown both won titles with the Spurs organization before moving to Cleveland, taking Popovich’s defense-first philosophy and some of his playoff-proven personnel with them. In fact, some of the offensive plays that Brown runs still bear the names assigned to them by Popovich and his coaching staff.
In the playoffs, Cleveland has gone through a much easier road to reach the NBA Finals. The Cavs started their run by sweeping the hapless Washington Wizards, who played without an injured Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler, their two top scorers. Next up were the seasoned New Jersey Nets who, led by Jason Kidd and Vince Carter, offered some resistance before bowing out in six games of the conference semi-finals. Lastly, there were the once-intimidating Pistons, who also fell in six games and now find their franchise to be in complete disarray.
The Spurs, on the other hand, had things a bit tougher. The opened the playoffs against the physical Denver Nuggets and dispatched the dynamic duo of Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony in five games. The now-infamous series with the Phoenix Suns followed, and it’s interesting to note that after San Antonio’s decisive series-clinching win in Game 6, Amare Stoudemire, who previously branded the Spurs a “dirty” team, left the floor without congratulating his opponent. The Utah Jazz provided another physical test for San Antonio before falling in five.
After the Utah clincher, the Spurs celebrated in subdued fashion and Ginobili offered some insight on the growth of his team. “It’s way different because the first two NBA championships we had some problems closing out games and we have learned from those mistakes,” said Ginobili following the contest. “But if we don’t finish in the next round, no one will remember what we did against Denver, Phoenix and Utah.”
“If Detroit wins the Eastern Conference it will be hard because they have experience and know how to win in big games,” responded Ginobili when asked about the possible opposition in the Finals. “If Cleveland wins, they are hungry because it will be their first time in the Finals.”
The Cavs are indeed hungry, but one has to wonder if just reaching the Finals is the hoops equivalent of hitting the glass ceiling for this young team. The league will no doubt hype this matchup as the game’s best player squaring off against the best team, which should play well, even in markets outside of San Antonio and Cleveland. In what should be a Finals for the ages, we’ll stick with our original pick of the Spurs in seven, but with the way San Antonio has been playing recently, don’t be surprised if the end comes sooner for the Cavs.