(Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)
SAN ANTONIO -- Spurs vs. Cavs. No-brainer, right? This matchup has long been settled and quite convincingly, everybody knows that, eh?
The two teams that hooked up at the AT&T Center Thursday appear to be heading in different directions. And it's not the way it was seven months ago or even one month ago.
So the Cavs beat the Spurs, 90-88. Manu Ginobili, who seemingly couldn't miss all night on his way to 31 points, didn't get a friendly bounce at the horn as his 18-footer that would have forced overtime slipped off the rim. That's not really giant news, after all the Cavs have beaten the Spurs four straight times in the regular season. The Spurs have four straight wins in the playoffs, slightly different.
But this game was more than just about a Finals rematch and the Cavs' minor whiff of revenge. Which is why it deserves a closer look.
With so many sexier stories going on in the NBA, maybe some stopped keeping tabs on the Spurs after they bolted out to a 17-3 start. With the vogue opinion to call LeBron James a one-man team, maybe some saw the Cavs' 10-14 beginning and wrote them off as a one-year wonder.
In fact, the Cavs' victory Thursday was their ninth in the past 11 games. The wins haven't been over cream puffs, either. In that stretch the Cavs have beaten the Lakers and Warriors at home and won in both Dallas and San Antonio, which nobody, much less a team from the Eastern Conference, seems to be able to do.
James is having a career year and making a strong case for the Most Valuable Player award. Not only are the Cavs 0-5 without him, he's leading the NBA in scoring (29.8) and averaging career highs in both rebounds ( 7.7) and assists (7.5) while shooting a career-best from the field (49 percent).
When James got hurt the Cavs were 9-6 and coming off a victory over the Celtics. They ended up dropping eight of nine games as James recovered. James, Larry Hughes (knee) and Anderson Varejao (contract holdout) all came back on the same night in mid-December and it took the Cavs a week to get back on their feet. Now they're off and running.
Thanks to James, who leads the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring, the Cavs own 12 come-from-behind wins in the final quarter and are 4-1 in overtime games. After sitting with the 10th-best record in the Eastern Conference six weeks into the season, the Cavs are now in fourth place.
"We have been playing some great basketball lately," James said. "We had a rough patch for a while and some teams took advantage of us, but the regular season means nothing. We're building for the playoffs and we're trying to get better every day."
Meanwhile, in the land of championship banners and non-stop mundane success, the Spurs are the ones searching. Thursday's defeat made them 8-9 since their amazing start with their annual "rodeo" road trip -- this year a nine-game meatgrinder -- only 10 days away.
Certainly the Spurs have dealt with injury problems; in December none of the big 3 of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Ginobili played together in the same game. Parker is back now, but the Spurs are concerned about a bone spur in his left heel limiting his explosiveness. It showed against the Cavs, who couldn't touch him in the Finals. He had 23 points and six assists but was not the same player and the Spurs' 88 points and 43 percent shooting showed it.
Overall, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has been grumbling about his team's waning focus, demonstrated by a 22-2 run they allowed to the Pistons last week and Thursday's second quarter, when the Cavs piled up 31 points even with James sitting for eight minutes. He's been searching everywhere for a rotation. Thursday he benched Robert Horry in the second half and started Matt Bonner at power forward in third quarter.
Then again, all of these Spurs have seen this before and they usually come out of it. Last season it wasn't until February that they started looking like a championship team.
"We really haven't played 48-minute games very often this season and that has been our negative for the last month," Popovich said. "We'll keep pounding at it ... right now we don't have too many people doing what we want them to do very consistently."
Brian Windhorst covers the Cavaliers and the NBA for the Akron Beacon Journal
LOS ANGELES -- Phoenix Suns forward Grant Hill, who had his appendix removed on Jan. 9, had a productive workout before the Suns-Lakers game Thursday night and could return to action Tuesday against Atlanta or as soon as Sunday against New Jersey.
It will be a longer wait for Lakers center Andrew Bynum who is four days into an estimated eight-week recovery and rehabilitation period for a dislocated kneecap.
Bynum showed up at Staples Center Thursday wearing a large, restrictive brace on his left leg and walking as if he were auditioning for a part as Frankenstein's monster.
"I'm not in any pain," Bynum said. "I can weight-bear."
The hardest thing, he said, is having to sit around the house -- especially when he watched the Lakers' overtime victory in Seattle Monday night.
"I'm jumping on the couch," Bynum said. "Then I'm like 'Ahhh, I gotta sit down.'"
Chad Ford: There's a deal where I don't think either team really gets any better. I think the Kings have to think rebuilding when shopping Artest and Bibby. T-Mac just isn't healthy enough or good enough any more to make a significant difference in the Kings' bottom line.
Linas Kleiza, Nuggets forward: Whoa! Kleiza scored a team-high 41 points on 13-of-21 shooting from the floor, including 4-of-8 from 3-point range, and 11-of-14 from the free-throw line in 41 minutes in Denver's 120-109 victory over Utah.
Kwame Brown, Lakers center: Seven turnovers in 25 minutes did not help ease the Andrew Bynum fill-in concerns in the 106-98 loss to the Suns.
Quote of the Night
"I will remember this night for the rest of my life."
-- Nuggets forward Linas Kleiza, on besting his career high by 12 points. • See how all 57 players fared
-- Andrew Ayres
With the Knicks on a winning streak, Chad Ford and Chris Sheridan examine Isiah Thomas' future in New York. Will he be the head coach for the rest of the season?
(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Nuggets forward Linas Kleiza dunks en route to 41 points as Jazz forward Carlos Boozer looks on in Denver's 120-109 win over Utah.
Rest Of Lakers' January
|Wed., 23rd||at San Antonio, ESPN|
|Fri., 25th||at Dallas|
|Sun., 27th||vs Cleveland, ABC|
|Tue., 29th||vs New York|
|Thu., 31st||at Detroit|