NBA Finals Preview - San Antonio vs. Cleveland
(Sports Network) - Superstar LeBron James and the Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers make their first-ever trip to the NBA Finals, as they battle the Western Conference's San Antonio Spurs in a best-of-seven series.
The first two games of the series will be played at the AT&T Center, while Games 3, 4 and 5 (if necessary) will take place at Quicken Loans Arena. If the set goes to a sixth and seventh game, San Antonio would host those contests.
During the regular season, Cleveland defeated the Spurs twice. The Cavaliers picked up an 88-81 victory on November 3, 2006 at the AT&T Center and edged San Antonio, 82-78, on January 2nd in front of their home crowd.
San Antonio, which was seeded third in the Western Conference, has advanced to the NBA Finals for the fourth time in franchise history and is a perfect 3-0 in this round. The Spurs defeated the New York Knicks in five in 1999, the New Jersey Nets in six in 2003 and the Detroit Pistons in seven in 2005.
The Spurs, who lost in seven to the Dallas Mavericks in last year's semifinals, knocked out No. 6 Denver in five games in the opening round, survived a tough six-game series with the second-seeded Suns and crushed No. 4 Utah in five games. San Antonio is in the postseason for the 10th straight year.
All-Stars Tim Duncan, who has been on all four of San Antonio's squads that have reached the finals, and Tony Parker are having excellent playoffs for the Spurs. Duncan leads the club in scoring (23.2 ppg) and rebounding (11.4 rpg), while Parker is averaging 19.8 points and a team-best 6.4 assists per game.
While Duncan and Parker are playing at the top of their games, Manu Ginobili has been solid and played his best ball of the postseason against Phoenix in the semis. Ginobili is averaging 16.4 points, 5.4 boards and 4.0 assists in the postseason.
Veteran Michael Finley has also done his part during San Antonio's run to the championship round. The 6-7 Finley has posted 13.1 points, 3.1 rebounds and is shooting over 46 percent from beyond the arc.
San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich, who has led the Spurs to three NBA championships during his tenure in San Antonio and was named the 2002-2003 NBA Coach of the Year, knows how to get the most out of his team and once again has figured out how to get them to the brink of earning a fourth championship.
The Spurs are 7-2 at home and 5-2 on the road in this year's playoffs.
Cleveland, which lost in seven to Detroit in last year's East semis, has advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. James has stepped up to the next level and has carried the Cavaliers, who were the second seed in the Eastern Conference, throughout the playoffs. They swept No. 7 Washington, 4-0, in the quarterfinals, beat New Jersey in six in the semis and surprised the top-seeded Pistons in six in the conference finals.
The 22-year-old James, who scored Cleveland's final 25 points and finished with 48 in Game 5s thrilling double-overtime victory over Detroit in the East finals, has been phenomenal in the postseason. He leads the Cavaliers in scoring (25.8 ppg) and assists (8.3 apg) in the playoffs.
Rookie Daniel Gibson has also stepped up for the Cavaliers. The Texas product came through big time against Detroit, as he hit clutch threes and has been productive while fellow guard Larry Hughes has battled through a heel injury. Gibson posted 13.5 points per game in the East finals and made 50 percent of his attempts from three-point range.
Center Zydrunas Ilgauskas is averaging 13.8 points and a club-high 9.5 rebounds in the postseason for Cleveland, while power forward Drew Gooden has been tough on the boards and has collected 11.1 points and 7.9 rebounds.
Cavaliers head coach Mike Brown, who completed his second campaign on the Cleveland bench, continues to do an excellent job. Brown, who earned a championship ring as an assistant with San Antonio in 2003, is 19-10 in the postseason.
Cleveland is 7-1 as the host and 5-3 as the visitor in this year's postseason.
FRONTCOURT: Duncan continues to show why he is one of the elite forwards in the game, while Fabricio Oberto has been a physical presence in the middle and Bruce Bowen knows his role and takes a lot of pride in his defensive work.
Bowen will follow James, who has grabbed 8.3 rebounds per game during the postseason, around and make sure he has to work hard for every shot that he takes. Ilgauskas and Gooden will have to pick up their production on offense, as the Spurs will be very physical with James and play very tough team defense. James may be too big for Bowen, but the rest of the Spurs will be ready to help out.
The Pistons defense couldn't handle James. Expect San Antonio to bang James more, and commit hard fouls when Cleveland's superstar takes the ball to the hoop.
As great as James has been, Duncan, believe it or not, has been equally impressive. The San Antonio forward is just not as flashy. The veteran Spurs have been here before, and experience will be a big factor in this matchup.
BACKCOURT: Parker has been doing it all and runs Popovich's offense almost to perfection. Finley excels in transition and should have another strong series against the Cavaliers.
Hughes, who is averaging 12.6 points and 4.1 rebounds in the playoffs, hurt his heel in the Detroit series and is not playing at 100 percent. Sasha Pavlovic is 6-7 and should be effective against San Antonio because of his size.
This could be the series where Parker takes over. The Cavaliers will have trouble keeping up with him, which will allow the middle to open up for Duncan. Parker is the difference in this matchup and will have a major impact on the outcome of this series.
BENCH: The 36-year-old Horry, who is averaging 4.6 points and 3.7 boards in the postseason, is there when the Spurs need him. Horry has won six championship rings in his career, and seems to play his best basketball during this time of year. Horry will once again be ready to hit the big shot when San Antonio needs a bucket.
Ginobili is the spark for Popovich off the bench. He is instant offense and has been playing well for Popovich. Versatile guard Brent Barry can play both guard spots and small forward, while the athletic Francisco Elson will help Oberto handle Ilgauskas.
Gibson, forwards Donyell Marshall, Anderson Varejao, who is averaging 5.6 points and 6.1 boards in the postseason, and guard Eric Snow give Brown a solid bench. Marshall is capable of getting hot from long distance, while the 6-10 Varejao's physical style of play in the paint will be a big asset against the Spurs.
The Cavaliers need Gibson to continue his stellar play, while Snow is a veteran and has made it to the NBA Finals for the third time in his career. Snow was a member of the 1995-96 Seattle SuperSonics, who lost to the Chicago Bulls in six in the finals, and the 2000-01 Philadelphia 76ers, who fell in five to the Lakers.
Cleveland's bench has come through in the clutch throughout the playoffs. Marshall came alive against New Jersey, while Gibson and Varejao shined in the conference finals. Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, the playoff-tested Spurs are just too strong in this matchup as well. San Antonio is mentally tough and won't fold under the pressure in any situation that may arise.
PREDICTION: Duncan and the Spurs earn their fourth championship. It will be extremely hard for Cleveland to handle Parker, who will have no problem scoring and handing out assists in this series. LeBron has been great in the playoffs, and will prevent San Antonio from sweeping the Cavaliers. The Spurs will simply be too much for Cleveland to handle.
SPURS IN FIVECLE SAN