SAN ANTONIO – Two years ago, the San Antonio Spurs wrapped up another NBA finals manhandling of the Detroit Pistons, scoring a second straight blowout victory to take a 2-0 series lead. The Pistons looked overmatched up and down the roster. People were talking sweep.
Then the series moved to Michigan.
"We won against Detroit by (21) in Game 2 and in Game 3 we got smashed, we lost by (17), and in Game 4 we lost by (31)," said Tony Parker, who is halfway to this year's finals MVP.
And so here we go again, San Antonio clearly the better team in the finals, just two late flurries by the Cleveland Cavaliers making the score appear closer than it was. The Spurs are up 2-0 after a 103-92 victory Sunday, and it's up to them to determine how long this one goes.
The Cavs' hope lies almost completely in past history – theirs of coming back from 2-0 holes and the Spurs' tendency through the years of letting opponents up off the canvas and allowing them to get right back into these things.
The Pistons in the 2005 finals – a series that wound up going to the final minutes of Game 7 before San Antonio pulled it out – are just the most famous example. Since 2002, the Spurs have taken 2-0 leads eight times. In six of those series, they lost Game 3. In four of them, they lost Game 4, too. Once, they lost the entire series.
"We already discussed it," said Tim Duncan, not 15 minutes after Game 2 ended.
They should have. And they should discuss it again on the flight to Cleveland and then a few more times before Tuesday's Game 3 tip in what will be a wild Quicken Loans Arena in downtown, title-starved Cleveland.
The Cavs have no business beating the Spurs four of the next five and won't unless San Antonio is complicit in making this thing competitive. But for all of the Spurs' power and might, they can fade and flop in a hurry, as two disinterested fourth quarters here proved.
Cleveland can cling to that. When the Cavaliers do get it cranked up and San Antonio is distracted, they can more than play with these guys. But that's about all they can take. In the first three quarters, when everyone is trying, it's been all Spurs.
So Cleveland has to keep repeating Pat Riley's old adage about how a series really doesn't start until someone loses on their home court.
As complete as San Antonio's two victories were, there remains a history in the NBA finals that a series can shift with a single flight. Maybe it is the league's unique decision to stage three consecutive games over almost an entire week in one city that relaxes home teams or wears out road clubs or does something to spin these best-of-sevens around.
Detroit was all but done in 2005 and then it wasn't. A year ago, the Heat looked terrible in dropping the first two games in Dallas by an average of 12 points. Shaq scored just five points in Game 2 and looked about 54 years old. Everyone was so convinced the series was over that Mark Cuban went on Letterman. Miami went home, everyone stepped up and the Heat didn't lose again. All of which, apparently, is on the Spurs' mind.
"I remember what happened in Games 3 and 4 (in Detroit)," Spurs guard Manu Ginobli said. "It was really embarrassing. (Hopefully), we are more humble going into those games."
Humble. Focused. Resilient. Whatever it is, San Antonio needs to bottle what it had here and take it to Ohio. The Spurs need to show the assassin's attitude that will close out the Cavs before they ever get started.
"We'll bring the focus and energy we need," Duncan promised. "We're not worried about a sweep. We want to get two wins, however long it takes."
They'll rue the day they let it go long. Letting Cleveland get back into the series, letting them flip the switch in Game 3, will make everything more difficult. The Cavs have been terrible, but as they showed against Detroit, they can improve by the game.
San Antonio still has the better team; it is more talented, deeper and more experienced. If you were choosing up sides on the playground, four of the first five picks would be Spurs. And as good as LeBron James can be, he hasn't been the player Parker and Duncan have been.
Cleveland is James and a lot of role players. But role players tend to play well at home. And no matter the 2-0 deficit, the Cavs' crowd will bring its near collegiate-level enthusiasm Tuesday.
"It's going to be unbelievable," Duncan said. "Incredible energy, deafening."
He kind of shrugged, though. He's seen this before. He knows talk is cheap. He wasn't just going to go all rah-rah for the sake of it. It's all about performance.
The Spurs are two games from a fourth championship. They've rocked Cleveland twice in a row, dominated it thoroughly, and the knockout is there for the taking.
But they know the history. They know they shouldn't let the Cavs up off the canvas.
- San Antonio