2007 NBA Playoff Preview - The NBA Finals
by John Canton(NBA)
Posted on June 7, 2007, 12:23 PM
John: It comes down to this. The Cleveland Cavaliers out of the Eastern Conference against the San Antonio Spurs out of the Western Conference. It's the two seed out of the East against the three seed from the West. How many predicted this? I'm sure some did, but it wasn't the popular prediction before the playoffs. On with the picks.
Cleveland Cavaliers vs. San Antonio Spurs
Mike: Well, after six weeks weíve finally reached the NBA playoffs. Itís really gross how long these series take. Consistently taking two and three days off between games is ridiculous, especially when you get to the conference finals and there are only four teams left. David Stern, the NBA Commissioner, likes to try and tell us that the TV stations are the cause of this. I donít believe any of that for a second, and I think if Stern cared enough about it, it would get fixed. Stern doesnít always have his full attention on the fans, which I donít understand, since theyíre the people that make him money. I think he demonstrated this well in the Horry/Nash/Stoudemire incident. I for one donít blame Stern for Amareís suspension, and I place full blame on Amare Stoudemire, since he is the only one that broke the rules, although everyone seems to forget about that when it comes time to figure out who was in the wrong. That being said, I donít think Stern made the best decision for the good of the league or the good of the fans. People wanted to see an even series between two of the best teams in the league. Instead they had to watch San Antonio defeat a handicapped Suns team and take a pivotal series lead. While Stoudemire broke the rules, it was not a serious infraction, and in this particular situation, it was in the NBAís best interest to let him play.
But anyways, enough about why I think Sternís decision-making at times is baffling from a business standpoint, letís talk about basketball.
In the Western Conference, you have the San Antonio Spurs, a team I almost ended up picking to win it all, but switched at the last minute for the sleeper Houston Rockets. That went quite well, as the Rockets fell asleep and got knocked out of the first round. Thanks T-Mac. I thought if San Antonio would lose at all before the NBA Finals, it would be against another very good defensive team. I really didnít worry too much about Phoenix, as theyíre all offense and no defense. Mike DíAntoni tries to claim that theyíre a good defensive team, and they just give up a lot of points because of their fast-paced offense, but Iím not an idiot, I watch them play, and they let teams drive on them all day. They arenít horrible on defense, you have to be able to make stops in order to win as many games as they did, but they donít play it well enough to win championships. As good as Steve Nash is on offense, heís a liabililty on defense, and I donít think he ever receives the criticism he deserves for his defensive skills. I donít really think the Stoudemire incident was that big of a deal anyways. The Spurs might have won Game 5 with him playing anyways, and if they didnít I still think the Spurs would have won in seven. Obviously I have no evidence to back this up other than I obviously know what Iím talking about (Go Yao!).
Manu Ginobli, Tony Parker, and Tim Duncan absolutely played out of their minds in that series. There has been some discussion on The Oratory Forums about Tim Duncanís place in power forward history. Honestly, I think he has to be at the top. Heís just been so dominant on both sides of the ball for so long, and his play in the playoffs so far has just been an extension of that. He has just been overpowering his opponents, coming up with big blocks on defense and hitting his trademark ridiculous bank shots off the glass at will. Ginobliís been coming up big off the bench, as well. Heís been doing a great job of getting into the paint, getting to the line, really stepping up in crunch time and making a lot of clutch plays. Heís very tough to defend, but is also a tough defender. Speaking of tough to defend, Tony Parkerís speed has been impressive. He has consistently given his defenders nightmares with his ability to blow by them for an easy layup. Even when they know itís coming, he does it any ways and seemingly scores with ease. The Spursí big men in the middle are playing well, Bruce Bowen has been effective on defense, and Horry has come up with clutch shots yet again in the playoffs. This team is peaking at the right time, and after a slow start to their regular season, they are on a tear right now and look very difficult to beat.
In the Eastern Conference, we have the somewhat surprising Cleveland Cavaliers. Unless youíre this guy, chances are you probably didnít pick Cleveland to make it to the NBA Finals. While the Cavs have shown themselves to be a talented team, they have been largely inconsistent, with Lebron James seeming unmotivated at times, and his teammates often failing to contribute on the offensive end to the extent that they should After convincing, albeit uninspiring series victories over the hapless Washington Wizards and the New Jersey Nets, Cleveland seemed to be in a bit of trouble going against the top seed in the conference, the Detroit Pistons. Detroit has a lot of star power on its team, plays stifling defense at times, and can get contributions offensively from any of its five starters. Unfortunately, as was the case last year, Detroit seems to have problems with their intensity at times. They donít always rise up to the challenge, as was the case with the Chicago Bulls. After winning the first two games convincingly, they were blown out in game three for two and a half quarters, before finding their game, and combined with an awful finish by the Bulls, went up 3-0, only to get destroyed in the next two games, including one at home. The Bulls played poorly in Game 6, and Detroit played better, although still not at the level they were at in the beginning of the season, and the Pistons won the series and moved on to face the Cavs.
At the beginning of the Eastern Conference Finals, Detroit again looked lethargic at times, but Cleveland just couldnít quite take advantage of their successes on defense and steal a win on the road. They overcame those problems at home, and took games 3 and 4 convincingly to tie up the series. The Cavs really took Detroit out of their game, and the guy who was supposed to be a pivotal figure for the Pistons, Chauncey Billups, both on offense and defense (guarding James), struggled mightily. Chauncey Billups also had problems scoring, which really hurt the Pistonís ability to score. Add onto that Rasheed Wallaceís growing temper problem (He ended up with seven technical fouls, just in the playoffs), and Detroit did not look like a championship caliber team. However, Cleveland didnít either. Until Game 5.
In one of the more amazing playoff performances (Well, performance period, not just the playoffs) in basketball history, Lebron James had his Ďcoming of ageí game. With about eight and a half minutes to go in the game, Zydrunas Ilgauskas became the last Cavs player besides James to score a field goal. Lebron would then go on to score 29 of the Cavs 30 points, including all their points in overtime and double overtime. He made the Detroit Pistons look like a college team, blowing past them for easy dunks, throwing up turnaround fadeaway 22-footers, hitting threes over double teams. It didnít matter what he tried, everything was going in. Every time Cleveland came up the court, it didnít even look like they were interested in running any plays, it was just give the ball to James and let him do what he needs to do. He single-handedly won the game for the Cavaliers, including slamming down the game-winning dunk (After getting fouled at least three times on his way to the basket with no calls being made) with two seconds left. Oh, and this game was in Detroit. The Pistons fans looked like someone had just run over their dog with a car, then stopped, got out of the car, and proceeded to jump up and down on it before getting back in the car and driving over it some more. Many of them didnít even get up an leave, they just sat there, frozen in shock and disbelief. It was just an absolute stunning performance to watch, and you couldnít help but laugh in amazement with every basket James made. You kept waiting to see if Detroit could pull it out, or if someone else on the Cavs would score, and yet as each minute ticked by, it was just more and more Lebron. If Lebron really is the Air to the Throne, heís got my vote.
Fans everywhere watched as the Detroit Pistons team that had dominated the Eastern Conference for the last few year broke, and crumbled down into nothingness. For sake of discussion, people brought up the fact that Detroit was also down 3-2 to the Cavs last year before winning two straight to take the series. But anyone who watched the Pistons knew that Lebron had just completely destroyed the team. There would be no repeat miracle comeback. James had crushed their souls, and so it was to the surprise of no one that they played uninspired basketball in game 6, with Rasheed Wallace blowing up at the end of the game in typical ĎSheed fashion, which was just the icing on the cake for Cavaliers fans as they clinched their first trip to the NBA Finals in team history. Not only did Cleveland win the series, but they most likely brought about the end of the Pistons as we know it. Flip Saunders is not the man for the job, not that that should be much of a surprise to anyone. Chris Webber is only going to decline with each year he continues to play. Chauncey Billups may be on his way out, and for all his talents, might not be worth the money heíll get in the offseason (Says the Bulls fan whose team is paying Ben Wallace $60 million). Who knows if Rasheed is still working, his stability certainly has to raise some concerns. So with Detroit probably facing rebuilding mode, Cleveland is in a prime spot to reign supreme over the Eastern Conference, depending on how the Chicago Bulls look next year with whatever low-post scorer they add in the draft this year (How does Isiah Thomas not get voted GM of the year every year?).
(On a side note, Conference championship celebrations are getting a little ridiculous. Iíll give Cleveland a pass this year since itís their first one, but they looked like a team who had just won the Championship. Have a little poise, youíre about to go to battle with arguably the best team in the NBA. Just seemed a little premature for just winning a trip to the Finals)
So, how does this San Antonio-Cleveland matchup look? Well, for starters, a whole lot more interesting than Spurs/Pistons was going to look. No offense, I enjoy a good defensive game, but it means poor ratings, not always a terribly exciting game, and to be honest, I hate the Detroit Pistons more than any other team in the NBA, and the arrogance I encounter on so many Spurs fans these days has really soured me on them as a team as well. Iím not exactly a fan of the Cleveland Cavaliers, except in the 90s when they served well as Michael Jordanís doormat, but I do love watching Lebron James play basketball, even if he does play for the enemy. Plus, everyone else in the country loves watching Lebron as well, and that means better ratings for the NBA.
Cleveland is definitely the underdog here. As evidenced by the afore mentioned Eastern Conference Championship ceremony, the Cavs seem giddy enough to just be in the Finals. They donít have the focus and determination of a team thatís been there before. San Antonio, on the other hand, could care less about Western Conference Championships, and they expect nothing less than an NBA title year after year. They know what to do, they know how to win, and that makes them a serious threat to Cleveland. They have played very well all throughout the playoffs, and seem to be getting better and better in each round. Their defense is stifling, their offense is effective. They are a well-rounded team, with very few weaknesses. Greg Popovich, their head coach, is great at getting his team to accomplish anything they want. So, with all that said, Cleveland still has Lebron James. James has become a bad, bad man in a hurry, and his lethality makes Clevelandís chances unpredictable. Bruce Bowen is going to have to have the series of his career in order to shut down James, and even then it may not work. If James can penetrate this Spurs defense, this could become a very close series and San Antonio will really have to work to pull out the victory. Daniel Gibson, who, for whatever reason is only becoming a household name now instead of during the regular season when he should have been playing more, has come alive for the Cavs, and combined with James, they can make a formidable duo. If both men play at the top of their games and execute like theyíre capable, it will be possible for them to take the series. Everyone talks about San Antonioís defensive swagger, but Cleveland has shown, especially in the Detroit series, that they know a thing or two about defense. I think San Antonio will ultimately win the series, but Iím giving Lebron the benefit of the doubt, and his team will give the Spurs a run for their money and take it to seven games. And then Spurs fans everywhere will just get that much cockier. Sigh, go Lebron.
San Antonio wins series, 4-3
John: Wow, Mikey, a seven game series, eh? I'm not so sure about that. These playoffs have largely been disappointing because there's only been one seven games series (Utah/Houston in round one) even though a lot of people expected more.
When you think of the Spurs the first thing that comes to mind is their defense. I don't think it's a stretch to say they're the best defensive team in the league and they have been for the past decade. Tim Duncan is an awesome presence in the middle. He's such a smart defender that doesn't reach, plays good position and always is there to bail teammates out. Bruce Bowen will badger LeBron James the other series and if he can get Bron to take bad shots then he's got the advantage. I like the composure of James, but there's nobody better in the league at getting under somebody's skin the way Bowen does it. The rest of the Spurs play really solid defense. Parker's quick, Ginobli and Oberto frustrate people with their soccer style flopping, Finley's still solid even though he's not as fast as he was and their reserves always hold up their end of it. There's no secret to what the Spurs do defensively. They play tough man to man defense, they help when they need to and they don't allow easy shots. You have to earn everything you get against this team.
The thing I like best about the Cavs is they're playing championship caliber defense and that's why they're here. I didn't think they had it in them. If you look at the roster, though, they were built for it because they got some pretty good depth. Hughes is an above average defender, James has become a good team defender as well as a very good rebounder and Pavlovic showed that he can keep up with the likes of Rip Hamilton enough to bother him. Eric Snow is so valuable late in games as he proved in game five when he did a couple steals. He's just a smart player. Gibson is quick and probably will see a lot of time on Tony Parker, which isn't easy. Stopping Parker is very difficult for anybody. You have to just try to make him take tough shots. I could see Hughes covering Parker a lot although I dunno if he can keep up considering his foot injury.
Up front their rotation of Ilgauskas, Gooden, Varaejo and Marshall at the 4-5 spots is successful because they have different skills. Z is a very good shot blocker because at 7'3" he's got an awesome reach while Gooden's just okay on defense. I think Varaejo is one of the five best big man defenders in the game especially his man to man defense. He's known for his flopping, but if you watch him he plays tremendous position and that's what frustrates guys. He's not afraid to get physical. Marshall is a solid glue guy on offense and defense, but especially on defense because he'll surprise you with his length as well as his quickness. They go nine deep and they really have gelled on the defensive end. That's why they're in the Finals and as long as they keep the group together they should continue to have a shot at a title.
I think Anderson Varajeo is exactly the type of player you want to put on Tim Duncan. I think he's going to get a lot of minutes because he's fast enough, physical enough and frustrating enough (with his ability to get in position for charges) to make Duncan work for every single thing he does. Nobody can stop Duncan by themselves, but he's the kind of guy that can really make it hard for him. Then again as we saw in the last series, Okur made him work a lot and it was their other guys that largely beat the Jazz. If Mike Brown is smart then he'll give Varajeo more minutes because they're going to need him.
Everybody that says defense wins championships is right. The Cavs are the best defensive team in the East while the Spurs are in the West.
All this defense talk is probably boring you, right? It's not the most fun to talk about either, but it's the reality of the game. If you can't stop people you'll have a tough time winning games. Look at the Suns the last three years. I think the bigger difference with these two teams is on offense. The Spurs simply have more weapons. I think Duncan and James will come close to canceling eachother out in terms of points. What about their teammates? I have a lot more faith in Parker, Ginobli, Finley, Horry, Barry and the underrated duo of Oberto and Elson to consistently help their star out. If you look at the Cavs they do have a quality second scorer in Zydrunas Ilgauskas, but the guy that should be their third scorer, Larry Hughes, has been very underwhelming in this year's playoffs. The other options like Drew Gooden, Donyell Marshall, Sasha Pavlovic and Daniel Gibson are all good in spurts, but they're not nearly as consistent as the Spurs guys. I know that Gibson dropped 31 on the Pistons in that series clincher, but against the Spurs do you see him getting as many open looks as he got? I don't.
The biggest thing will be can the Cavs win one of the first two games in San Antonio? I think they have to. I don't know if they can. They did it in the regular season, so I'm sure that helps with their confidence because they know they've done it in the past and that goes a long way. Can they win the series? Sure they can. They've grown up a lot this year, they have the chip on the shoulder because they're a huge underdog and they also have arguably the best player in the league in LeBron James. We could also see something similar to last year's finals when Dwayne Wade had a parade to the foul line thanks to the refs giving him every call. I think for the Cavs to win they will need James to penetrate as much as humanly possible and he has to nail those free throws.
I don't like the Spurs. I think they flop too much, I think they complain way too much and I absolutely hate the 40 shots per game of Eva Longoria looking at her fingernails in the crowd. I do like the Cavs. I'm happy that Big Z is in the finals after 11 years, that James has grown up so much as a player this playoff season and that a city that has lost so much has a shot at winning a title. I just don't think it's going to happen. The Spurs are too deep, too experience and there will be too much of Tim Duncan for the Cavs to handle. I hope I'm wrong. I really do. I'll be rooting for the Cavs to win. I just think the Spurs are better in too many key areas and that they'll be too much for Cleveland. Spurs win the first two at home, Cleveland wins the next two at home, Spurs win game five in Cleveland and then the Spurs close it out in game six at home. Lots of close games, I hope.
Spurs in 6
We hope youíve enjoyed the previews. They've been a joy to write. Next season we'll try to write more about the NBA during the season.