CLEVELAND -- The lasting impression from this one was the slo-mo replay of LeBron James standing beyond the 3-point line and arguing his case with official Bob Delaney.
Blown opportunity for Cavs
"He fouled me. Right there," James told Delaney.
And, truth be told, James was right. Just before he went up for the final shot, a potential game-tying 3-pointer launched with 4.9 seconds left, Bruce Bowen reached out and shoved him in the back -- a play that looked to the naked eye like Bowen trying to foul James before he could get off a 3, which would have sent him to the line for two shots when the Cavs needed three points.
But what really must be steaming Cavs fans is that James went up for the shot just a split-second after Bowen shoved him, which 90 percent of the time would have been judged a continuation, giving James three shots from the line.
But Delaney never blew his whistle (I'll have a hard time all summer fathoming how James could not get that call in his own building, in the NBA Finals, no less), James' shot rimmed out, and the Spurs walked off with a 75-72 victory Tuesday night that gave them a commanding 3-0 lead in the series.
"Incidental contact. It didn't affect my shot," James said from the podium just a few minutes later before beating a hasty retreat from the arena, making the long walk from the interview area down to his silver sedan in the players' parking lot with an NBA Entertainment camera crew following him the entire way.
"My man looks down," one janitor said to no one in particular after catching a glimpse of James shuffling down the hallway.
Well, of course he looked down after this night of blown opportunities, the Cavs catching the Spurs on a night when Tim Duncan was ordinary, Tony Parker was containable and Manu Ginobili was as close to awful as he'll ever get.
The Cavs won just about every statistical category, producing more than twice as many offensive rebounds, committing fewer turnovers, scoring more points in the paint and blocking more than twice as many shots. But the one area they didn't come out ahead on was shooting percentage, going just 29-for-79 from the field (36.7 percent), including 3-for-19 from 3-point range, to San Antonio's 28-for-68 (41.2 percent).
The sequence that ultimately doomed the Cavs, Delaney's swallowed whistle notwithstanding, began with 5:28 left in the fourth quarter after James hit a free throw to cut the Spurs' lead to 67-63 with 5:28 left. Here's how their next five possessions went: A missed 19-footer by Sasha Pavlovic, a ball lost out of bounds by Anderson Varejao, a missed layup by James, a missed 3-pointer by James and a missed finger roll by James.
That stretch lasted more than 3½ minutes, and do you know what the soon-to-be-champion San Antonio Spurs did offensively over that same stretch? Nothing, nada, zippity-do-dah. They didn't even miss the same number of shots as the Cavs did in that stretch because they were busy committing three of their four fourth-quarter turnovers.
"I know it was ugly," Brent Barry said, "but we're up 3-0 at the end of the day, and that's all that counts in the series."
As ugly as the game was from an offensive standpoint, there was a redeeming quality: For the first time in the three games, the finish was compelling.
After Parker made it a five-point game by making a 3-pointer with one minute left, Pavlovic answered right back with a 3 and Parker missed a runner, giving the Cavs the ball back with 24 seconds remaining. That's when the last big screwup not involving Delaney happened. As James drove the lane and met a double-team, he made a short pass to Varejao and stepped quickly back expecting to receive the ball again so he could try another move.
But Varejao panicked when he should have passed, driving left and spinning right before attempting a half-sidearm, half-underhanded shot that missed terribly. James was visibly upset with his teammate, but the Cavs got another shot when Ginobili went to the foul line with 10.4 seconds left and missed one of two. The Cavs came out of a timeout looking for a quick two and got it from James, cutting their deficit to one, 73-72.
Ginobili then made a pair from the line with 5.5 seconds left, setting the stage for the final possession.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was coy when I pressed him on whether he instructed his team to foul.
"Whatever strategy we're going to use, it's nothing amazing, but I would rather just keep it to ourselves. It might happen again," he said.
But Bowen certainly did foul him, and Delaney didn't blow his whistle. And so it ended, LeBron standing there pleading his case with Delaney as the fans began exiting in stunned silence. They got their money's worth from an excitement standpoint down the stretch, but they didn't get what they came to see -- a win by the Cavaliers in the first NBA Finals game ever held in Cleveland.
If those same fans don't get to see a Cavs' win on Thursday, they'll be forced to endure the indignity of having the visitors celebrate a championship on LeBron's home court. And if you think James looked down after this one ended, it's probably nothing compared to what he'll look like Thursday if this thing comes to an end.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.
Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
LeBron James launches his final shot that would have tied the game. Instead, Cleveland lost, 75-72.
CLEVELAND -- I've been pretty harsh on the Cavs this week, so let me say this: They totally outplayed the Spurs on Tuesday night and deserved to win.
The reason they didn't was the NBA's ultimate wild card: The 3-point shot. Both teams attempted 19 shots from downtown, and the ones by the Spurs didn't seem any more open than the ones Cleveland took. If anything, in fact, more of the Spurs' attempts were contested. But unfortunately for the Cavs, San Antonio made 10 of those tries, while Cleveland hit only three.
Part of the reason, of course, is that the Spurs have better shooters. They were one of the league's best 3-point shooting teams during the regular season, ranking third at 38.1 percent, while the Cavs' 35.2 percent mark ranked just 18th.
But that difference shouldn't produce a 21-point disparity from the arc -- the difference between a Cavs romp and a narrow defeat -- as San Antonio made 52.6 percent of their triples to the Cavs' 15.8 percent. Daniel "Boobie" Gibson went 0-for-5, seemingly all on clean looks, after scorching the nets from downtown all postseason. LeBron James also went 0-for-5, including the controversial miss at the end. Meanwhile, the Cavs were shot down by BBs at the other end -- Brent Barry and Bruce Bowen combined to hit 7-of-9.
The shame of it all is that the Cavs outplayed San Antonio in every other facet:
• Take away 3-pointers and San Antonio shot 36.7 percent, to Cleveland's 43.3 percent.
• The Cavs routinely beat the Spurs to loose balls and more than doubled up the Spurs on offensive boards, 15 to 7.
• The Spurs made 14 turnovers to Cleveland's 12.
• The Spurs missed seven of their 16 free-throw attempts, including two misses by the normally steady Tony Parker in the first quarter.
• The Cavs held Spurs super sub Manu Ginobili without a field goal, and also kept Duncan (6-for-17) and Parker (7-for-17) well in check.
Combined, the "Big 3" of the Spurs shot 13-for-41 (31.7 percent) and had only 34 points.
• The Cavs had 19 assists to the Spurs' 15, despite the fact that nearly all the Spurs' 3-point makes were assisted.
So if there's a silver lining for Cleveland tonight, it's that if they play this well again on Thursday night they probably will extend the series. Alas, that's little comfort to Cavs fans at this point, as Cleveland's odds of winning look more remote than ever.
-- John Hollinger in Cleveland
Nate (DC): How quickly we forget: at this time last year, the Heat were down 2-0 and people were giving them about as much chance to beat Dallas as Cleveland is getting today against the Spurs. Wade started playing out of his mind, and they won 4 games against a Dallas team that was playing just as well then as the Spurs are now. If LBJ doesn't pull the same upset, with roughly the same poor supporting class, can't we say that Wade is, at least at this point, a bigger success?
Marc Stein: The Cavs' team is far interior to Miami's team from a year ago. The Heat had so much more experience, Shaq to open up the floor for Wade, Zo turning back the clock with his D. C'mon.
AP Photo/Eric Gay
LeBron James communicates his displeasure to referee Bob Delaney, letting him know he believes he was fouled before his final shot.
Quote of the Day:
-- Andrew Ayres
ESPN Radio sideline reporters Lisa Salters (Cavs) and Ric Bucher (Spurs) provided the best nuggets overheard during Sunday's Spurs-Cavs Game 3 of the NBA Finals:
Cavs: At the start of the fourth quarter, down 5, the Cavs were coming off a dismal third in which they scored just 12 points and shot 26 percent from the field.
That's when veteran Eric Snow told his teammates, who were sulking on the bench, "Hey, you've gotta look like you're gonna win -- not like you just missed a shot. Forget about those missed shots. Don't feel sorry for yourself. You're in the NBA Finals. It's not gonna be easy, but we can get it done!"
Spurs: In a timeout with 5:24 left in the second quarter, the Cavs leading 32-28 and Tim Duncan having just picked up his third foul, Bruce Bowen shouted at his teammates: "We know we've got to deal with adversity. That's what this is right now! We can get through this!"
With Duncan on the bench the remainder of the period, the Spurs outscored the Cavs 12-6 to take a 40-38 halftime lead.
Catch the next Cavs-Spurs game starting Thursday at 8:20 p.m. ET on ESPN Radio.
Perhaps less Boobie is more Boobie.
Desperate for a measure to shake up his lethargic offense, Cavs coach Mike Brown did what many were calling for: He gave more playing time to rookie Daniel Gibson.
In a philosophical shift, Brown deactivated wounded point guard Larry Hughes and elevated Gibson to the starting lineup for Game 3.
While Brown was wary of messing with Gibson's rhythm of coming off the bench, he was getting very little production out of Hughes. Gibson had shown extreme poise throughout the playoffs, first scoring 31 points in the Eastern Conference finals clincher and then averaging 15.5 points on 59 percent shooting in the first two games of the NBA Finals. So Brown pulled the trigger.
Gibson used his quickness to help slow down Spurs' guard Tony Parker for much of the game and relieved LeBron James of picking up the bulk of the assignment, as was the plan with Hughes in the lineup. But his trusty jumper abandoned him completely in the heat of being a starter for the first time since February.
He went just 1-of-10 shooting and 0-of-5 on 3-pointers to finish with just two points. Quite coincidentally, those are the same numbers Hughes tabulated in the series' first two games.
"I had a gut feel and I went with starting him, and I though he did some good things out on the floor," Brown said. "His shot just didn't go down."
Unlike past games when Gibson usually waited for an open shot to develop, usually off a feed from a flooded James or from a drive-and-kick, Gibson several times tried to force the issue over bigger defenders.
The Spurs made it tougher on him, as well, a few times even double-teaming the normal double-team breaker.
Those contested looks sure didn't go in, and then neither did his open shots later in the game.
At one point, after a foul stopped play, Gibson tried to squeeze off a practice 3-pointer from the top of the key. It was an airball.
"I was comfortable out there, I was comfortable shooting and I was comfortable in the starting lineup," Gibson said. "The shots just didn't fall."
-- Brian Windhorst in Cleveland
Even with Hall of Famer Jim Brown sitting courtside for good luck -- a legendary reminder of the pre-Super Bowl NFL championship won in 1964 by the Cleveland Browns, the last champion in this long-suffering city -- James' gang couldn't reward the desperate locals with a solitary, consolation stifling of Tony Parker and Eva Longoria. Not even on a night when Tim Duncan didn't attempt a single free throw until the final quarter and when Manu Ginobili was held scoreless until the final 10 seconds and when LeBron finally found a way to get to the rim occasionally.
The Cavs' problem?
More than the hobbling Larry Hughes' inability to play or Daniel "Boobie" Gibson going flat in the promotion to the starting lineup so many were calling for, Cleveland's big problem was the opposition. The Spurs simply -- inevitably -- came up with alternative solutions.