Spurs facing a Cavs team built in their image
CLEVELAND -- Born and raised a Pistons fan, Dan Gilbert celebrated earnestly in 2004 when his hometown team won a championship and with a defensive-based, blue-collar attitude. The next year he bitterly watched as the San Antonio Spurs knocked them from the perch to claim their most-recent ring.
So in early 2005 when Gilbert wrote a check for $375 million to buy the Cleveland Cavaliers, an underachieving team in another depressed Rust Belt city, he knew exactly how he wanted to make his franchise. As fellow owners attempted to retool their organizations to run like the Phoenix Suns, Gilbert went the other way and aimed at building a team based on defense with a front office that thought likewise.
He spent a long time talking to Larry Brown, at one point discussing making him the Cavs' team president, but ultimately hired a Spurs executive in Danny Ferry to be the GM and a first-time head coach in Mike Brown who lived and breathed a defensive style he developed under Gregg Popovich as a Spurs assistant.
Improbably, the Cavs, after spending huge in free agency and then drafting wisely, have ridden their superstar to their first-ever Finals appearance just a little over two years after Gilbert assumed control of the team. And not so improbably, the Spurs are still there waiting for them.
The day Brown was hired he swore he would make the Cavs in the Spurs' image, a defense-first team. Over the past two seasons the Cavs have experienced plenty of up-and-down moments on offense, especially as it relates to the use of LeBron James and his supporting cast, but the defense quietly got better and better and better.
This year, the Cavs were fifth in the NBA in defense during the regular season and became just one of five teams to have won 50 games in each of the past two years. In the playoffs, neither the Wizards, the Nets nor the Pistons were able to find any holes in Brown's complex, strong help-and-recover rotations.
During his first two years on the job, Brown leaned on Popovich regularly for advice. He named some of his plays the exact same names that were used in San Antonio. Even during the Eastern Conference finals against the Pistons as the Spurs were fighting to eliminate the Utah Jazz, Popovich was serving as a mentor with routine phone calls.
Which makes one wonder how he'll do when that faucet of experience is turned off? However, you then realize that since Brown became the Cavs coach, they are 3-1 against the Spurs, including a sweep this season when the Cavs won in San Antonio for the first time since 1988.
This season alone, the Cavs have outscored the Spurs 11-10 in a grinding, defense-only quarter and pounded them 38-28 in an uptempo, fast-paced quarter.
James scored 36 points in the AT&T Center in November, leading a late charge that included a vicious dunk over Tim Duncan. A team manager tacked a photo of the dunk on the wall above James' locker and it's been there for seven months now, its edges fraying and curving inward but its message still the same.
The Cavs have all sorts of trouble with Tony Parker, who is quicker than any of their guards. The easiest way to deconstruct Cleveland's defense is to get a penetrator like Parker into the middle of the lane.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas, the Cavs' rangy center, has trouble staying out of foul trouble against Duncan and isn't as effective on offensive rebounds. They often lost Rasheed Wallace on the backside of the defense for 3-pointers and Robert Horry presents the same threat.
But James is playing the best basketball of his career, not just averaging 26 points and eight rebounds in the playoffs but also killing double-teams with an amazing 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
All of those factors give the Cavs some excitement at facing their next serious test.
"I love Gregg Popovich," Ferry said after the Cavs eliminated the Pistons. "But we're going down there to beat his butt."
Brian Windhorst covers the Cavaliers for the Akron Beacon Journal
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The Spurs are making their third appearance in five years. The Cavs are making their first in team history.
The NBA Finals begin Thursday on ABC (9 ET).
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