Game 64: San Antonio Spurs vs Cleveland Cavaliers
San Antonio welcomed LeBron James and crew to the AT&T Center on Thursday night, and met them with an early focus befitting a championship team. Fans got the word earlier in the afternoon that guard Manu Ginobili would in fact play despite suffering from the flu for the past four days. The Spurs would need all members of the Big Four to fire on all cylinders to hang with the Cavaliers, who are eyeing a championship run themselves.
Of course most had their eye on the Kawhi Leonard/ LeBron James matchup. In the 2014 Finals, Leonard held his own against King James on his way to a title and Finals MVP recognition. I was focused on the Spurs’ front court versus Timofey Mozgov and Kevin Love. Mozgov has been terrific since joining the Cavaliers earlier in this season, and this gives the Spurs a challenge with their bigs, for which they have such high regard.
Mar 10, 2015; Dallas, TX, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guardKyrie Irving
(2) during the game against the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
This game also gives Tony Parker a chance to benchmark himself against one of the better scoring point guards in the league in Kyrie Irving. Defensively Parker has to improve as the season is in its final lap. Entering the playoffs, Parker will be facing a potential match up against : Steph Curry, Mike Conley, Chris Paul, or Russell Westbrook. All are at the top of their game with the exception of Paul.
Tim Duncan had a quick four points in this game, which was great to see. Duncan was injured with a minute left to play in San Antonio’s victory against the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday night so those early points were a pleasant sight.
San Antonio brought a charge in the first quarter, shooting 59% from the field. Parker led the Spurs with nine points in the period.
Tiago Splitter was already logging big minutes into the second quarter, surprisingly spent without Mozgov on the court. Coach Gregg Popovich started the rotation of Duncan, Boris Diaw, and Matt Bonner, but kept Splitter in the game. A strange move indeed. Splitter was worn out halfway through the period.
Surprisingly enough, Bonner actually played decent defense on Kevin Love. The two players share a style of play, and size. Of course they are on opposite ends of the stardom-spectrum.
San Antonio Spurs fans should refrain from reading too much into this home loss.
Popovich settled in on an offensive strategy early in the second quarter: give the ball to Leonard on the left block. I counted six times in the period when San Antonio ran that half-court set, clearing out from the left side and letting Leonard do work. He is truly becoming a two-way star.
When Leonard got a break- briefly- Danny Green slid over onto LeBron and was able to force him into the facilitator role versus the scorer.
The two point guards were phenomenal in the first half. There was a stretch in the period when Kyrie Irving scored 14 straight points for the Cavs. Irving had 22 points at the half, while Parker managed 19.
Leonard kept showing his defensive diversity. On a switch, Love had the ball eight feet from the basket, and Leonard stood him straight up. Even on the power-dribble Leonard was simply rooted to the floor, unmoving. Love had to pass out of the possession that led to a Spurs rebound.
The period was otherwise uneventful. Both teams were limited offensively, with the Spurs holding a 20-17 edge in the quarter.
The Spurs started to tighten things up in the fourth, but were unable to separate from the Cavs until 3:05 left in the game. The lineup of Marco Belinelli, Parker, Leonard, Green, and Duncan played most of the way. Typical Spurs, defense was the key. LeBron was attempting to play hero-ball, on the missed layup Leonard got the rebound and pressed the ball up the court. Of course, instead of taking it in against two defenders Leonard kicked the ball out to the wing where Danny Green stood waiting. The net popped so loudly as the ball passed through that you could hear it crisply on the telecast. San Antonio went up by nine.
I thought it was really telling that as the game drew closer to crunch time, and with the Cavs within six points of the tie, Kevin Love was nowhere to be found. Cleveland has obviously lost faith in him as a scorer. In 33 minutes, Love contributed eight points and five rebounds. It’s guaranteed that they are rethinking that Andrew Wiggins trade.
Conversely Duncan’s line is truly amazing,especially for a 38-year-old: 18 points, 11 rebounds, eight assists, and four blocks.
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Free throws bit the Spurs. Leonard, despite a significant defensive game, and 24 points, missed two down the stretch allowing for the buzzer-beater from Irving to tie the game and send it into overtime. Make those shots, as he typically does, and the Spurs win a close game over a good team.
Instead the Cavaliers needed an all time franchise best performance (topping the 2005, 56-point performance by LeBron against the Raptors) from their point guard. That just won’t consistently happen. Spurs fans should refrain from reading too much into this home loss. It means little due to the aforementioned point.
The Spurs have shown their ability to rise to the occasion, so I expect their winning trend to continue through the end of the year. However, in what was perhaps a Finals preview, the Cavs bested the Spurs 128-125 despite 31 points from Parker.