Before welcoming the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs to Quicken Loans Arena, LeBron James said the experience of leading the Cleveland Cavaliers' young stars, of teaching them about professionalism and how to win, is the greatest challenge he's faced in his Hall of Fame career. After Wednesday's contest, he'll be able to impart a particularly important lesson — how to accept responsibility for a pivotal late-game miscue.
With the Spurs leading 91-90 and 9.1 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, San Antonio guard Manu Ginobili stepped to the foul line for a pair of free throws. The Argentine canned the first but missed the second, giving Cleveland possession with a chance to tie or win it at the buzzer. The Cavaliers had no timeouts remaining, though, so they had to push the ball the length of the court to get one last crack at an equalizer or a winner.
But after Anderson Varejao had rebounded the miss and handed it to James, the Spurs worked to pressure James' dribble in the backcourt, with Tim Duncan looking to cut James off from the middle of the floor as he sprinted back and Ginobili stepping over from the stripe to impede James' progress. After James dribbled from left to right around his back to evade Ginobili, he tapped the ball a bit too hard with his right hand, losing control of his dribble and sending the ball into Duncan's feet. Ginobili came away from the ensuing scramble with possession, raced back into the frontcourt, and avoided a Cavaliers foul long enough for the final horn to sound, giving the Spurs a 92-90 road win, their fifth in six games.
Before he walked off the court, James raised his hand, throwing up a sign to one and all that he was taking responsibility for the turnover that cost the Cavs a chance to get one last shot. It was James' fifth turnover of the game, and Cleveland's 18th; San Antonio scored 22 points off those mistakes, seven more than the Cavs managed off Spurs turnovers. In a tightly contested game with such a small margin for error, such a discrepancy can prove costly, and it did Wednesday for David Blatt's club, which fell to 5-5 as the early-season struggles continue in Cleveland.
James has long since sloughed off the ill-fitting late-game choker mantle some commentators saddled him with early in his career — four MVPs, a monstrous statistical record in Game 7s and a pair of championship rings will do that for you — but this note really puts into perspective just how rare such late-game missteps have been for LeBron over the years:
This was the 1st time LeBron James had a turnover in the final 5 seconds of a 1-possession game since Jan. 4, 2009 at Wizards
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 20, 2014
But rare though it might have been, it happened, serving as a somewhat fitting cap to a night that saw James score 15 points on just 6-for-17 shooting and attempt only one free throw in 34 minutes of work. He did add nine assists and six rebounds, but it wasn't enough to keep the Cavs from dropping their second straight, and continuing to look like a team that's capable of producing nearly unstoppable offense only in occasional fits and starts between long stretches of my-turn-your-turn stagnation that don't seem to get the best out of Cleveland's stellar individual pieces.
Kevin Love grabbed 11 rebounds and dished five assists, but he missed eight of his 12 shots, including both of his 3-point tries, and often struggled to match up with Spurs big man Boris Diaw (19 points on 8-for-14 shooting, seven assists, six rebounds, three steals and a block in 39 minutes). Kyrie Irving chipped in 20 points on 15 shots and got the better of his individual matchup with Tony Parker (eight points on 2-for-7 shooting and three assists in 33 1/2 minutes), but missed his final three shots — a runout layup just past the midway point of the fourth, a pretty clean look at a left-wing 3 with 3 1/2 minutes left, and a go-it-alone pull-up fadeaway in the paint with just under two minutes remaining — at points where the Cavs needed every make they could muster against the Spurs' stingy defense.
Blatt still seems to be searching for rotation answers, too, shelving Mike Miller, limiting former top-five picks Dion Waiters and Tristan Thompson to just 21 and 17 minutes respectively, and relying on 2014 second-round pick Joe Harris to play the entire fourth quarter on the wing. And while the rookie out of Virginia has been better than many expected for the Cavs in the early going, guess who the Spurs attacked when they needed a basket in the final 30 seconds to get some breathing room?
It's something we've seen the Spurs go to time and again — Manu feeds Parker on the wing then cuts toward the basket; Parker enters to Duncan at the left elbow; Duncan hits Manu on the high-low; Manu, who has done a masterful job to make Harris think he's moving to the corner before reverse-pivoting inside, catches directly in front of the rim and makes the key bucket with his strong left hand. Welcome to the big leagues, Mr. Harris. Enjoy the film session.
Another look at Manu's cut and lay-in:
Despite the game-sealing bit of late-stage execution by the three Hall-of-Fame linchpins, San Antonio still doesn't quite look like they've found a rhythm yet. The Spurs missed 11 of their 16 3-point tries and eight free throws en route to just 92 points against the Cavs' 26th-ranked defense. But they got enough stops of their own — through 11 games, the Spurs are allowing just 95.7 points per 100 possessions, the third-best mark in the NBA — and enough contributions from the likes of Diaw, Ginobili (seven points, five assists and three rebounds in 33 minutes) and reserve point guard Cory Joseph (10 points on 4-for-5 shooting, three assists and three rebounds in just 18 minutes) to support Duncan, who notched his seventh double-double of the season (19 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, two blocks, two steals) and led the way to San Antonio's seventh win of the season.
That, right now, seems to be the difference between the team that ousted James in last summer's NBA finals and the team he joined in hopes of getting back to the championship round. The Spurs know who they are and what they're supposed to be doing, even if they aren't necessarily doing it to their maximum capacity just yet. The Cavs know who they can be, but aren't sure how to get there, and at the moment, they don't seem especially sure of who they are.
When those elemental questions remain unanswered, you wind up leaning on individual talent more than team identity. Sometimes, that works out just fine. Sometimes, though, even brilliance blunders, and the result is raising your hand to take blame while the other guys get their hands raised in victory.
GIF via Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated.
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