Wednesday , Jun , 06 , 2007 C.Y. Ellis

NBA Finals: The Breakdown and The Call

The NBA Finals herald the arrival of the league’s next great superstar. After taking down the long reigning Pistons in the East, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers get ready to battle the veteran Spurs. The Spurs are going for their fourth NBA title in nine years, and it all starts Thursday in game one of the NBA Finals.


NBA Finals: The Breakdown and The Call

This is the first trip to the Finals in Cleveland Cavaliers franchise history. LeBron James is competing for his first title and playing out of his mind. The Spurs and Tim Duncan go for their fourth ring in nine seasons.

More often than not, when I decide to pen an article, I tend to immediately start looking for angles – it’s what I do. After all, what’s a topic worth if I can’t present it in an interesting way, which a unique view point? But after 82 games and three quarters of a postseason played, and after all the angles being covered along the way, there isn’t much left to say.

The NBA Finals start tomorrow. And it seems now the only thing left to do is write about the people that matter – the players. A straight forward, no nonsense, player by player match up breakdown seemed like the way to go. So what follows is an extensive look at each of the starting positions and/or defensive match ups in the Finals, with the occasional mention of a bench player or two who will invariably have a big impact on the series.

And finally, yes, concluding this article will be a prediction for which team I think will win the series. Because after six or seven games, only one team takes home the ‘chip.

POINT GUARD
Larry Hughes/Daniel Gibson vs. Tony Parker

This is an interesting match up for two reasons. First is the initial match up between Hughes and Parker. Hughes, in all honesty, is not a true point guard, but his size and length are going to be a help to him in guarding Parker. Everybody who checks Parker has to end up spacing him one way or another, at least this way Cleveland has somebody on him who has the length so as not to give too much room for a jump shot.

The other very interesting aspect of the lead guard spots is Daniel Gibson. While Gibson isn’t starting, he has been playing a healthy amount of minutes off the bench the last few games for Cleveland, and coming up big against Detroit. The 6-2 rookie out of Texas averaged 21 per game over the final three games against the Pistons, including a huge 31 point outburst in game six to clinch the series. Neither Hughes nor Gibson are great play makers, but they can both put up points, and Gibson especially is instant offense off the bench, not afraid to take the three and an effective penetrator.

The key for the Spurs is making sure Gibson doesn’t explode off the bench and provide the Cavaliers with a chunk of points in a short time span. For Cleveland, they have to keep Tony Parker out of the paint, and force him to take jump shots. Not only is Parker’s individual scoring at its best when he’s in the lane, the entire Spurs offense flows better when he penetrates.

OFF GUARD
Sasha Pavlovic vs Michael Finley/Manu Ginobili

Let me just note that I could easily throw Hughes into this mix as well, as he and Gibson will likely share time in the backcourt at some point. And should either Ginobili or Finley have to check Hughes, that would be a largely even match up, dependent on Hughes’ ever inconsistent aggression level. As for Pavlovic, he can be a viable threat offensively, but he struggled in the Detroit series and regaining your confidence and shooting touch against the San Antonio Spurs is not an easy task to tackle. Cleveland has few enough shooters as it is, and considering Pavlovic shot .403 from three in the regular season, he’ll be needed to hit some open shots when the doubles come down on LeBron.

Sasha is also going to have his share of problems dealing the Spurs’ tandem of two guards. Even though Finley isn’t quite the star player he used to be, he remains one of the legit scoring threats on the floor, he’s a sharp shot from outside and still has a deadly pull up jumper. Furthermore Gregg Popovich never stops encouraging him to shoot and be aggressive. I haven’t even mentioned Ginobili yet, but rest assured, he’s going to be a handful for everyone on Cleveland’s squad, regardless of who is guarding him. It’s going to take a conscious team effort by the Cavaliers to stop Ginobili. Manu has a ridiculous proficiency in weaving and twisting between defenders to get to the bucket, often drawing a foul or two on his way to the cup. Cleveland is going to have to play pick and rolls smart and close gaps quickly. Most importantly, when Ginobili is in that right corner, you have to force him baseline and you absolutely cannot let him drive to the middle with his left.

Cleveland is going to find themselves without an answer in this match up, and mark my words, coach Mike Brown will do something about. At some point I expect Daniel Gibson to be moved into the starting lineup and Hughes to be moved to the two guard spot. It might happen two or three games in, it might happen to start the series off, but it is going to happen at some point. Not only would it make sense offensively, but defensively Hughes is far more apt to handle the lengthy, athletic Manu Ginobili than Pavlovic is.

FORWARD
LeBron James vs. Bruce Bowen

LeBron is the most physically intimidating player in the NBA. Yeah, you heard me. Not Shaq, not Amare Stoudemire, not Dwight Howard – LeBron. Physical intimidation comes from more than just sheer strength or size, it also comes from quickness and athleticism. LeBron James, despite what any official numbers might say, is a stout 250 lbs, not a pound less. And yet even with all that weight (I assure, it’s all
muscle) he will still be faster than any Spur not named Tony Parker. That presents a serious problem for Bruce Bowen.

The line on Bowen is that he is the best perimeter defender in the league (by any means necessary), but if you’ve watched him long enough you know this: bigger guards and forwards who like to go down low have success against Bowen. Carmelo Anthony, Ron Artest, Bonzi Wells back in the day, Bowen has trouble with all these. It isn’t a size issue, it’s a strength and mentality issue, combined with quickness. Bowen has more success against taller players like Zach Randolph and Dirk Nowitzki so long as they feel content to hang outside and shoot jumpers. If anyone on the Cleveland’s coaching staff has any sense they’ve already sat LeBron down to watch tape of this and beat into his brain that he needs to punish Bowen down low and not try to beat him out past fifteen feet.

LeBron’s mentality and personal strategy are going to have a lot to do with this. If he wants to play it pretty and dance around outside and dribble around and shoot jumpers, Bowen is going to give him fits like he’s done to every other star guard in the league.

The key for the Spurs is realizing Bowen cannot guard LeBron, not by himself. Stopping LeBron has to be a team effort, schemed and executed to perfection. You have to force him into the baseline and corners and keep him there, cut off his options on the floor and funnel him into your shot blocker, aka the Big Fundamental. Traps, presses, and zones should all be employed with great diversity. The mentality should be to throw everything you’ve got at him and continue to change up the defense he sees; never allow him to get comfortable. And most importantly, if all else fails and LeBron starts to get hot, you do everything you can to get the ball out of his hands. Do everything Detroit didn’t. Double, triple, quadruple team – whatever it takes. The focus for Bowen and the Spurs as a whole has to be keeping LeBron out of rhythm.

POWER FORWARD
Drew Gooden vs. Tim Duncan

Let me make this incredibly clear: Drew Gooden is toast. No offense to Gooden, even though that patch of hair on the back of his head makes him look like an idiot, he’s a pretty decent player and he’s played a big role thus far for the Cavs. But in terms of guarding Tim Duncan, dude doesn’t have a pray. Tim Duncan has averaged 24.1 points, 15 rebounds, and 3.2 blocks in 18 Finals games. There are few players that have ever been as great as Duncan, and even fewer have been as experienced as Duncan at dominating when it counts the most. Gooden will do what he can to slow Duncan down, but that’s all he can do is try to slow him down. If anything Gooden will be most effective in challenging Duncan on the other end, forcing Duncan to use up some energy and maybe get him into foul trouble.

At some point or another, if not immediately, Ilguaskas is going to have to guard Duncan. I’m not entirely confident Ilguaskas can do a much better job than Gooden, but at 7-3 he is at least large enough to get in Duncan’s way. Even so, Duncan can face up and take Ilgauskas off the dribble. Much like the strategy for stopping LeBron, negating Tim Duncan, even a little bit, if a group effort. Double teams have to come hard and fast, and the remaining defenders have to be ready to rotate and contest shooters for San Antonio waiting to get the kick out from Duncan.

A large part of stopping Duncan, as I mentioned above, will be getting him into foul trouble. The Cavs honestly can’t stop Duncan so long as he’s on the floor, therefore there should be a decided effort to keep him off the floor. Everyone for the Cavaliers, Gooden especially, has to aggressively challenge Duncan looking to draw a foul. If Duncan can manage to keep out of foul trouble, we can only expect to see more of what we’ve seen from him in the past – dominance.

CENTER
Zydrunas Ilgauskas vs. Fabricio Oberto

This isn’t as one sided a match up as you may think, although it is more of a Oberto guarding Ilguaskas situation, so that’s where I’ll start. First, Ilguaskas does have a size advantage. Oberto only stands about 6-10, not bad unless you’re expected to guard a 7-3 guy who tends to shoot sweeping hook shots and fade away jumpers. Don’t expect Oberto to be blocking any shots on Ilguaskas. The only thing Oberto can do to stop Ilguaskas from getting any shot he wants is to deny him position close to the basket and force him into uncomfortable positions on the floor.

One aspect I’d like to note, Oberto can score a little himself. While I don’t expect him to contribute much more than around 10-12 points a night, he does have a reliable jump shot out to about sixteen feet and he can finish well with both hands around the basket. Moreover, he’s a tenacious and relentless worker on the offensive glass. Maybe Ilguaskas isn’t going to have to worry about Fabricio taking twenty-five shots a game, but Oberto will be crashing the boards hard on every shot taken while he’s in the game. If the Cavs aren’t careful Oberto might run out onto the court from the bench and tip out a loose ball to a teammate. Boxing out Oberto can be as important as anything you do, because his effort on the glass often leads to Spurs points one way or another.

It is possible that Tim Duncan could be put on Ilguaskas. Big Z will likely end up on Duncan at some point, and it would likewise make sense if Duncan checked Cleveland’s big man. Obviously Duncan is the better defender, but he’s also the Spurs best shot blocker and Pop is going to want to have him freed up to chase shots in the lane. If Duncan does, however, end up on Ilguaskas, his additional length and shot blocking prowess will certainly affect the 7-3 center.

The Call

The Spurs are the better basketball team, that much is undeniable. But in the NBA, so often it’s the team with the best player on the floor that wins. And while there can be a debate on the comparative greatness of LeBron James and Tim Duncan, I think it’s clear at this point LeBron is having a more dominant effect on games. That being said, the Spurs are the better team. LeBron James is going to be great, he’s going to elevate our perception of his greatness once more in this series. I expect him to take over at least one or two games to the point where he can carry his team to a win, but that’s it. The Spurs are deeper, they have more threats to take over a game (Duncan, Parker, Ginobili), they have more experience, and they have the better defense. The Spurs win the title in six games.