Sunday, June 03, 2007

2007 NBA Finals Preview - Spurs vs. Cavs

You know what sucks? Kidney stones. A lot. So inbetween bouts of pain, and a little medicated, I'm prepared to offer expert analysis on the NBA Finals.

Watching LeBron and the Cavs last night, they've taken the place of Golden State as the team with the heart of the nation. As they pulled away from the Pistons late, and as Detroit self-destructed behind Rasheed Wallace, giving the casual fan no real reason to like them, everyone who wasn't a real Pistons fan - from you and me in our living rooms, to Ernie Johnson and the entire TNT crew, to David Stern - is now in love with the Cleveland Cavaliers. And while the opposition in San Antonio is the very definition of bland, which will allow everyone to jump on the Cleveland bandwagon for the next two weeks, that doesn't mean that there's not a lot on the line here in these NBA Finals.

When the playoffs started a month ago, few of the potential Finals matchups looked to be generally exciting, or even as exciting as the up and down series between Miami and Dallas last year. I picked Dallas and Detroit to square off in the Finals, which would've been the two best teams from each conference going at it, but still...not very sexy. And while you couldn't realistically pick Kobe and the Lakers, or even Shaq/Wade and the Heat to make the Finals this year, Golden State filled the void for a nice week or two.

Even into the conference finals, there was a particular attraction about the potential San Antonio vs. Detroit rematch. You would have the two best teams from the last five years, each with a chance to enhance their potential dynasty resume.

And when the playoffs started, few gave LeBron and the Cavs a legitimate shot to get this far. They caught a huge break in the bracket, starting when Chicago lost on the last day of the regular season to give the Cavs the two seed and the matchup with the starless Wizards, followed by the winner of the hapless New Jersey/Toronto series. We talked about the fact that LeBron needed to make the conference finals this year, because the road wouldn't be any easier, probably ever. And so they did.

But when Detroit dispatched a red hot Bulls team in the conference semis, how many people gave Cleveland a legitimate shot? Not me - I said that I smelled a rout and picked the Pistons in 5. Even with two closesly played games at The Palace, Detroit was still up 2-0, and it seemed like they would win. Even in the presence of LeBron's greatness in Game 5, I was convinced that Detroit was still going to win that game up until the point that they actually lost it.

But Game 5 made you start believing. And then Game 6 - where LeBron didn't hit a bucket until the 8:00 mark of the third quarter, and the Cavs were still in it - somehow solidified your belief. And now here we are.

And everyone's forgotten about San Antonio. They haven't been national news since Robert Horry body checked Steve Nash. They really weren't threatened, on the whole, by Denver or Utah. And yet again, here they are, patiently and quietly waiting on the opposition.

If you had asked David Stern, or any NBA fan, both at the start of the season and at the start of the playoffs, if San Antonio vs. Cleveland was an attractive NBA Finals matchup, everyone would've laughed. And with legitimate reason. But now...all of a sudden, I find myself more excited about these NBA Finals than any other since the Lakers-Pacers (read: Bird) duel in 2000. And I'm not alone. Because now, you have the mythical man vs. machine matchup - the best team in the NBA over the last five years in San Antonio - a team with a chance to write some real history for themselves - vs. the potential best player in the NBA right now. Both San Antonio and Cleveland, via LeBron, have a true and real opportunity to write a page in NBA history. No matter who wins, you're going to have something special that just took place. And sure, seven games and some overtime would be helpful. But the world is at stake for both teams.

For San Antonio...
In NBA history, when you talk about the greatest teams in history, it's a short list. When you use the word "dynasty", it goes like this:

1. Boston Celtics 1957-1969
12 Finals appearances in 13 years, 11 championships including 8 in a row from 1959-1966. The Bill Russell Celtics are the definitive dynasty in the history of sports.

2. Chicago Bulls 1991-1998
6 Finals, 6 Championships on consecutive three peats when Michael Jordan played the entire season.

3. Minneapolis Lakers 1949-1954
5 for 5 in the NBA Finals over the course of six seasons.

4. LA Lakers 1980-1991
The Showtime Lakers went to the Finals 9 times in 12 years, and won 5 titles. Their counterparts...

5. Boston Celtics 1981-1987
...went to the Finals 5 times in 7 years, and won 3 titles. Every single season in the 1980s, either the Lakers or the Celtics played for the NBA Finals, and played each other three times.

6. LA Lakers 2000-2004
The Shaq & Kobe Lakers threepeated from 2000-2002, then made it back to the Finals in 2004 before the dynasty came to an abrupt halt at the hands of the Pistons.

Now, from here, there's a small list of teams that have achieved some level of fame and legacy, but never quite became dynasties...the Knicks and Lakers of the early 70s, the Bad Boy Pistons who repeated in 1989-1990, Hakeem's Rockets that filled the space between Jordan with two titles in 94 and 95...and Tim Duncan's Spurs, who've won titles in 99, 03, and 05. The dynasty list above is an extremely rare class to break into...

...but if the Spurs beat Cleveland, it'll give this unit four championships in nine years, and it'll mean they're 4 for 4 in the Finals. And as stated, in the grand scheme of things, only Russell's Celtics, Jordan's Bulls, and Magic's Lakers have four rings as a collective unit. The general populace may not realize it yet, but the Spurs are playing for a piece of basketball immortality.

If Tim Duncan leads this team to victory, it'll mean he has the same number of rings as Shaquille O'Neal, and will have done it all with one team. It will further distance him from other contemporaries, such as Hakeem Olajuwon. More than that, it will mean that Duncan - who already has more rings than names like Barkley, Malone, and Chamberlain - will now have more rings than most of the best of his time in Kobe Bryant, and most of the best of all time, including Larry Bird.

And the San Antonio story is bigger than Tim Duncan. Gregg Popovich has been at the helm in San Antonio since 1996. The 99 cast retains only Duncan, the John Smoltz factor in this equation. But where names like David Robinson, Sean Elliot, Mario Elie and Steve Kerr have moved on, they've been replaced by a new group, including Tony Parker, Bruce Bowen, and Manu Ginobili, who each have two rings from the 03 and 05 title teams. Robert Horry, who was around in 05, will be playing for his seventh ring. With the addition of Michael Finley, the Spurs have both kept the nucleus of this team together (Duncan/Parker/Bowen/Ginobili) for the long haul, and added the right pieces at the right time. So while Duncan is the only player who's been around for the long haul, this collective unit still has a chance to go down as one of the five best teams/dynasties in NBA history.

If San Antonio loses, they'll still be on the outside of that conversation. They'll still be good, they just won't be legendary. Their previous Finals appearances include wins over the upstart 8 seed Knicks in the lockout-shortened 99 season, and the massively overmatched Nets in 2003. Their seven game duel with Detroit in 2005 was good basketball, even if nobody watched it. But people will be watching this time. And so, if San Antonio walks away with the victory, whether you know it or not, you'll be watching the best player of his generation in Tim Duncan, on the best team of his generation, and, arguably, one of the five greatest NBA dynasties of all time.

For Cleveland...
They're the reason you'll be watching. And the things that are at stake for Tim Duncan's career are at stake for LeBron James' present reality.

While there is some debate, Tim Duncan can really cement himself as the best player of his generation - better than Kevin Garnett, better than Kobe, better than Iverson, better than anyone drafted in or around the late 90s. It will, at least, put him on par with the older Shaquille O'Neal, and pulling even with him on rings, all done in San Antonio, might give him the advantage. But that's another blog.

While there is some debate, LeBron James can really cement himself - if not as the all around best player right now - at the very least, as the face of the NBA. If LeBron can lead the Cavs to victory against these dynasty-seeking Spurs, he fully becomes "the man". More than Kobe, more than D-Wade, more than Nash or Dirk, more than Duncan. If LeBron gets the ring, then everything you've heard about him will be validated, and we will have fully entered The LeBron Era.

Michael Jordan, the unquestioned best player ever, had more help than LeBron does now. Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, Dennis Rodman - these guys were good players. Magic and Bird had Hall of Fame supporting casts. And even Shaquille hasn't won one by himself. The world is on the table for LeBron.

Now, we've been here before. Allen Iverson has stood in these shoes, but they didn't fit, as the Lakers bounced them in five games in 2001. Lots of teams built on the strength of one player - Barkley's Sixers, 'Nique's Hawks, etc. - never even made the Finals. And so, if the Spurs sweep the Cavs, or even if they win in five or six but the series isn't really overly competitive, then LeBron will live to fight another day. And, just as it would've been if Chauncey Billups made a shot or two in Game 5 on Thursday night, the sentiment will become "great player, no question - but no one can do it by themselves." Because really, no one has.

Even Jordan never saw a challenge like the Spurs. The Lakers he beat in 91 were old, the Blazers and Sonics in 92 and 96 just really weren't that special, and the Stockton/Malone Jazz have a way of reminding you of San Antonio, in the way they were underrated, but they still weren't dominant. Only the 93 Suns had the look and feel of a team that could stand toe to toe with Jordan's Bulls...and they didn't. MJ's legacy suffers where Bird and Magic excel - the nemesis, the rivalry. LeBron doesn't have that yet - though he could develop something in the Eastern Conference with D-Wade - but what he does have is a chance to put it all on his back against one of the greatest collective units in NBA history. All this to say...this, we haven't seen before. And it's history either way.

So these have become an important NBA Finals. Will the Spurs cement their legacy and become one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history? Or will we be witness to the crowning of King James?

What will happen?
First and foremost, you want and the NBA needs competitive basketball. A San Antonio sweep might be good, eventually, for the larger LeBron story, and it will cement the San Antonio legacy, but it's bad publicity and bad for ratings. A Cleveland sweep is so unlikely, we're not going to entertain it. Seven games, of course, is what you really want. But it can go six and still be entertaining. Close games are a must, storylines are a must. This series has the pieces to provide them...but will it?
In their two regular season meetings...surprise surprise, Cleveland won both. And what's important to note about them, other than that they were both close games, is that in the first meeting - in the second game of the season - Cleveland won because LeBron scored 35 points. But in the second game, LeBron did not play well at all...and Cleveland still won.
Questions like that were answered even further with LeBron's "quiet" performance in Game 6, where Daniel Gibson took up the scoring mantle. So even if the supporting cast isn't all-star worthy, they're still NBA players. The "LeBron can't do it alone" naysayers will be heard loud if the Spurs run away with this thing.
You know the names for the Spurs - Tony Parker, Michael Finley, Bruce Bowen, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan. And you know LeBron. But for Cleveland, the names that need to become more household are Drew Gooden, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Donyell Marshall, Daniel Gibson, and anyone else who wants to step up - Eric Snow, Larry Hughes, whoever.
Bruce Bowen will likely draw LBJ, and Bowen is a great defender. But so was Tayshaun Prince, and when LeBron went into attack mode, Prince was merely in the way. Given that its the Finals, I doubt you'll see the more complacent LeBron - at least, we all hope not. But if you get the full throttle LeBron for as long as this thing lasts, then the Cavs are dangerous.
Playoff experience will, of course, also be a factor. The Spurs - all of them - have been here. They know the Finals. They know the pressure. They know the thrill of victory and are yet to taste the agony of defeat. No one wearing a Cleveland uniform really has much of any idea about the Finals - Eric Snow was in Philly in 01, but that's about it. But the Cavs are also brash enough not to care about the fact that San Antonio is a dynasty waiting to happen. So we'll see.
I have deep respect for San Antonio, I like the way they play, I really admire Tim Duncan and the whole unit. I've pulled for the Spurs in each of their three previous finals appearances. But I'm like everyone else that's not a real Spurs fan - I'm pulling for LeBron this time around. Because I want to see it. I want to be watching when he gets it done, because I know I'll remember watching Game 5 on Thursday night. There's something special about it. (And yeah, I don't want Duncan to have more rings than Bird.) But regardless...you can't help but want to see LBJ win it.
So? Last time around, I vastly underestimated both LBJ's ability to turn it on, and the fact that he could keep it on. And I underestimated exactly how good his on was. Thus, my "Pistons in 5" pick turned into "Cavs in 6", and could've easily been "Cavs in 4". So even while, once again, a small part of me sees San Antonio running away with this thing, we're not picking it. In fact, Stephen A. Smith is the only one I've really heard get out there and say that Cleveland has no real chance.
But can you realistically pick Cleveland? The hated 2-3-2 format in the NBA Finals means that Cleveland really, really needs to win either Game 1 or 2. If they don't - even though they just went this route with Detroit - coming home down 2-0 will probably mean they're done, because I simply don't see them beating SA three straight, even at The Q. I want to pick Cleveland...my heart says Cavs, my head says Spurs. But, in this case, I actually think my heart has a greater chance of being right than my head. San Antonio is the better team...but if Cleveland gets one early, they may just have what it takes to pull this out. You can pick Cleveland here and not be a crazy person - they could actually pull this off. Picking the great team over the great player didn't work out so well for the Pistons...San Antonio is better, but the same rules may still apply.
Either way, we're in for history and I think we're in for a deep series, which should be exciting. If pressed...well, if you've been reading this blog long enough, you know that my heart is currently undefeated against my head.
Will's Pick: Cavs in seven.

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