LeBron salutes 'world power' Spurs, but belief not yet universal
CLEVELAND -- You can hurl another round of epithets at the San Antonio Spurs if you wish. Run through the usual litany -- boring, winnin' ugly, lucky -- if you just can't bring yourself to salute these guys.
LeBron James has the haters covered.
There's a good chance, even if these Spurs wind up sweeping the NBA Finals, that no one will be calling them dynastic or fantastic. Although it sits just one win away from its third title in five seasons, San Antonio has never won back-to-back championships. The amount of resistance coming from James' Cleveland Cavaliers, furthermore, isn't helping the Spurs' case.
It was still good to hear a humbled James late Tuesday night, reminding his audience that this was no ordinary group that spoiled the first Finals game ever played in this city, pulling out one of its trademark Uglyball specials by the unsightly count of 75-72.
"A world power team," King James, as he's known here, called the Spurs.
As recently as a week ago, given the privilege of asking him, you would have heard James decree that the Detroit Pistons are the team in this league that he "respects the most."
Three games changed that. This one especially.
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 in being held to a career-Finals-low 14 points 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.
Bruce Bowen had as many points as James through three quarters with 13 and also grabbed nine clutch boards. Parker beat the shot-clock buzzer with a huge 3-pointer in the final minute, even though he's been outlawed from shooting 3s all season by coach Gregg Popovich. Speaking of triples, San Antonio somehow drained 10 of them in a low-scoring game like this, going 10-for-19 to Cleveland's 3-for-19 shooting from behind the line.
The team D wasn't bad, either.
"We set the Western World of offensive basketball back 10 years," Popovich said. Yet Pop also added: "I think I can honestly say that these three games is the best defense we've played all season. This is the best defense we've played in the playoffs and it's been back-to-back-to-back, without a doubt."
Consider James convinced, after needing 23 shots to get his 25 points.
"I'm not surprised [about] how tough it is," LeBron said. "I think the Eastern Conference finals was tough and I knew it was going to pick up another level. I think our team senses that also.
"You know, the experience factor, we don't like to make any excuse, but it definitely played a part in this Finals."
The tone of finality in that statement was unintentional but understandable. James has to be discouraged by the unshakable defensive presence of Bowen and his helpers.
Fact is, James has to be accountable for his frequent lack of decisiveness with the ball. He has the strength, speed and agility to cross up Bowen like Utah's Deron Williams did, but Williams made much sharper, quicker moves attacking the Spurs' perimeter ace.
Of course, Williams also had a pick-and-roll partner named Carlos Boozer to keep the Spurs' big men occupied. James doesn't have a teammate close to Boozer's level offensively and didn't have great fortune, either, in Game 3 crunch time. He somehow sandwiched two missed layups around an errant 3-pointer in a three-possession sequence with the Cavs down by a mere 67-63. He also didn't get the ball back on Anderson Varejao's ill-advised layup attempt with 13.9 seconds to go -- with Cavs coach Mike Brown screaming for a timeout -- and didn't get the Dwyane Wade call or the kind bounce on the in-and-out triple that could have forced overtime.
Not that any of those developments could be classified as unexpected, given that James can't get more than one unrushed shot in a row against the Spurs. As his old pal Boozer noted in the previous round, "everything" against San Antonio "is easier said than done."
So call it another non-surprise that the first Finals game in Cleveland in the Cavs' 37-year existence wound up being the game that effectively buried them.
As Ginobili softly summarized, "They did not have a happy night."
The dynasty debate, then, begins in earnest now. Can't see anyone waiting to see how Thursday's Game 4 turns out to start computing the Spurs' place in history.
The Spurs, though, don't sound too hopeful, accustomed as they are to absorbing less-than-flattering reviews.
"There have been very few dynasties," Duncan said over the weekend. "I don't know that we can consider ourselves a dynasty, but that's me on the inside looking out. Dynasties are the things that the Lakers of the '80s and the [old] Celtics [did]. Those are who you consider dynasties -- teams that have done it for many, many, many years. Hopefully we can look back in a couple years and be considered something like that. But, as of now, I can't imagine that we would be considered alongside those guys.
"Winning is our goal. Whatever that equals in the long run, you can define it however you want to."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.