Welcome to the NBA finals, young fella.
James couldn’t solve San Antonio’s stifling defense and the pick-and-rolling Spurs, as fundamental and selfless as ever, outclassed Cleveland in an 85-76 victory in Game 1 on Thursday night.
Tim Duncan had 24 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks, and Tony Parker added 27 points and seven assists for the Spurs, who began their quest for a fourth championship since 1999 with a defensive clinic on James and the Cavs, making their first appearance in the finals.
With the eyes of Texas, a curious hoops nation and the world upon him, the 22-year-old James, who has rarely failed to rise to any occasion, flopped like never before.
James shot just 4-of-16 from the field and finished with 14 points and six turnovers in 44 exhausting minutes. Led by Bruce Bowen, their top defensive agitator, the Spurs grounded Cleveland’s soaring superstar.
“If I went by one guy, another guy stepped up,” James said. “For us to have a chance to win, I have to play better.”
This was hardly the series opener James, the NBA or ABC-TV executives, had hoped for. James’ first foray into the finals was hyped in the days leading up to the game as many wondered if he could deliver the way Michael Jordan once did.
But James wasn’t close to being Jordanesque, and he came nowhere near matching His Airness’ first game in the finals when he scorched the Los Angeles Lakers for 36 points on June 2, 1991.
Game 2 of the best-of-seven series is Sunday night in San Antonio. Games 3, 4 and 5 (if necessary) will be in Cleveland.
The Spurs’ game plan was to make it tough for James to score. They made it nearly impossible as Bowen forced him toward the sideline and away from the lane — his personal runway to dunks.
“We did a very good job on LeBron, not giving him the lanes that he’s used to,” Duncan said. “It takes five guys understanding what we’re doing, understanding a game plan and sticking with it.”
The Spurs, who lost twice to the Cavaliers during the regular season, seemed to be one step ahead of James all night. When he cut left, they cut him off. When he tried going right, they were right there. By the time James made his first outside jumper—a 3-pointer with 6:54 left—the Spurs had built a 74-59 lead.
By then, the Spurs had squeezed the life out of Cleveland and its young star.
“LeBron is the head of the snake,” Spurs forward Robert Horry said, “and we need to cut that head off.”
The 31-year-old Duncan, labeled boring because of his lack of flash, did what he always does: dominate.
The Big Fundamental knocked down open jumpers, freed up teammates with crunching picks and generally had his way against Cleveland’s frontline for San Antonio, which was lifted by its crowd’s incessant chants of “Go, Spurs, Go.”
Parker, too, was on top of his game. The speedy point guard slashed and sliced past Larry Hughes and James for easy layups.
“We have to make the game harder for him,” Hughes said.
It couldn’t have been any tougher for James.
After missing his first eight shots, he finally got his first field goal with 7:15 left in the third quarter, blasting down the lane through a pack of Spurs to hit a scoop shot that brought the Cavs within 46-41.
But Bowen responded with a 3-pointer, Manu Ginobili hit another from long range and Duncan dished to Parker for a layup to make it 56-47. On the Spurs’ next trip, Parker weaved his way inside and dropped in a layup, the ball sitting on the rim for several seconds before finally falling.
The Spurs eventually pushed their lead to 64-49 after three, and then opened the final period with 3-pointers by Horry and Ginobili to open their biggest lead, 70-52 with 8:50 left.
Two 3-pointers by James and a few jumpers by rookie Daniel Gibson, who led the Cavaliers with 16 points, cleaned up the score but it wasn’t nearly that close as Cleveland shot under 40 percent until a late barrage.
“They started to do a good job towards the end of the game,” Duncan said. “They got a couple of layups and a couple of easy shots. We’ll have to clean that up a little bit.”
James left with 45 seconds to go, dejectedly slumping into his seat after a night he’d probably like to forget.
“He struggled mightily,” Cavs coach Mike Brown said. “They closed down the paint, and we tried to pick-and-roll with him. When he did get in the paint, he wasn’t able to finish because they were bringing bodies, not just one, but two, three bodies.”
Before taking the floor for their first finals game in Cleveland’s 37-year history, the Cavaliers huddled near the tunnel for a prayer. Then, James and his teammates repeated something they’ve done since the first day of training camp.
“One, two, three, championship,” they shouted in unison.
But it became clear very early on that any climb to a title would be steep.
The Spurs, who hadn’t played in a week since beating Utah in the Western Conference finals, showed no early rust. They started 7-of-9 from the field as Parker and Duncan combined for 14 of San Antonio’s first 16 points as San Antonio opened a 20-15 lead after one.
Every time James took off for the basket, the Spurs seemed to multiply in his face. On one drive, he had his headband yanked off by Duncan, who got posterized on a dunk by James in the first meeting between the teams in November.
Seven months later, Duncan got even.
On the occasion of his fourth finals, the three-time finals MVP, arrived at the arena with a freshly shaved head—typically a sign that he’s ready to rumble. He has been reluctant to talk about his place in history or the Spurs’ ascension to a dynasty level.
But if this game was any indication, San Antonio may soon be recognized as one of the league’s great powers. Unless, of course, James figures out a way to get to the basket or get his jumper to fall.
“A lot of shots I took, I usually make,” he said. “Things like that happen. You have one off night, but it’s not like the NCAA tournament where you have one game and you’re out. We’ve got to regroup.”
Game 1 winners have gone on to win the series 17 of 23 times since 1984. … American Idol winner Jordin Sparks sang the national anthem. … The finals always bring out celebrities of all shapes and sizes as well as great former players including Julius Erving, Patrick Ewing, Clyde Drexler, Bob Lanier, David Robinson and Grant Hill. Erving spent time before the game chatting with actress Eva Longoria, Parker’s fiancee. Later, when Erving was introduced to the crowd, Ewing bowed several times to salute “Dr. J.” … Horry is trying to win his seventh NBA title. “Big Shot Rob” won two with Houston (1994, 1995), three with the Los Angeles Lakers (2000-02) and one with San Antonio (2005).