Spurs wear out LeBron James and Cavs in title-contender matchup
San Antonio's slow, consistent pounding takes its toll and the Cavaliers manage to hang with another contender but again come up short. What, if anything, does it mean for their season?
For years, the San Antonio Spurs have preached a message, one that is etched in the plaque that hangs in their locker room from the poet Jacob Riis:
“When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”
This is how they beat everyone. From Shaq and Kobe's Lakers to the Pistons to the Suns to the Thunder to the Heat.
It's how they beat the Cavaliers on Thursday.
It's how they beat LeBron James.
We speak of the NBA in terms of star power, highlights, individual greatness and to be sure, those talents have defined the legacies of greatness throughout its history. But real excellence in the NBA is defined by consistency. It's the ability to play well possession by possession for 48 minutes, every night, and that's where the Spurs are so spectacular, despite almost none of it sparking the highlight reels.
Thursday night the Spurs took down the Cavaliers 99-95, despite the Cavaliers coming out with an aggressive, crisp and emphatic first quarter. Cleveland put up 32 points on the league's best defense in that first quarter. They wouldn't score over 25 points in any of the final three quarters. In the second half, LeBron James scored just eight points on 3-of-7 shooting with four assists and a turnover. The Spurs wore James out.
In the third quarter, TNT's Craig Sager reported that James went to the bench with 41 seconds remaining just to get an extra bit of rest before the half. Coach David Blatt told Sager that James was winded from how "intense" the contest was. It was definitely a playoff-atmosphere game, but it's also another in a long line of games where James has run out of gas. The most famous example is Game 1 of the 2014 Finals when James, then with the Heat, had to be carried off the court with cramps when the air conditioning went out.
But it goes beyond that. The Spurs employ constant movement and physical defense. Kawhi Leonard is the easy answer as to how they slow down James, and indeed, Leonard had more than a few moments of stellar defense that stymied James possession by possession. It wasn't just Leonard, though. Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, even Tony Parker and Kyle Anderson took turns playing James physical, challenging his dribble and bodying him, forcing him to push himself further to get space. That takes it out of James, especially at age 31.
The Spurs didn't blast James off the court; they never do. They kept pounding, and wore him down over the course of 48 minutes, all the while employing their consistent offensive execution to slowly erase the lead Cleveland built, then expand the lead they gained in the third. It never felt out of reach, it never felt like San Antonio had blown the game open, it just felt like the win Cleveland had firmly grasped in the first quarter had turned to oil and slipped through their fingers.
Cleveland didn't need this win. It doesn't remove them from title contention, and in both this game and their Christmas Day loss to the Warriors, the Cavaliers proved they belong in the conversation about title contenders. They are right there.
They're just not at the top of the pile. They are not in the driver's seat. The league is not chasing them. The Cavs are chasing the Warriors and the Spurs. The Eastern Conference is a formality, and yes, that is something worth recognizing when we examine how great the Cavs are. In a lot of years, the Cavs would be far and away the best team. Not this year. The bar is higher. The challenge is tougher. Their margin for error is slimmer, the level they need every player to hit is higher. Good is not good enough, great is not great enough. You need something more to beat the Warriors and the Spurs.
Cleveland's had to go on the road for both of those contests -- they get the Warriors in their house in four days' time. There's still a lot of questions for Cleveland. It's easy to breeze past these in the regular season as they're chalking up an impressive winning percentage. It can feel like nit-picking and doomsday overreactions to a regular-season loss, when you consider they maintain a 3.5-game lead over the Raptors. (Be honest, you thought it was more, didn't you?)
Here's the issue, though. There are specific ways you can attack the Cavaliers that don't exist with the Warriors and Spurs. The Spurs dared Richard Jefferson to hurt them when they helped off of him. He couldn't. The Spurs weathered the storm of J.R. Smith and Kevin Love's first quarter when the duo combined for 15 points ... and the pair finished with 12 points in the final three quarters. More troubling, the Spurs, in a very un-Spurs-like mechanism, targeted Love repeatedly in the fourth quarter to close the game.
Love's defense has always been an elephant in the room. When the effort is there, it's abysmal. The effort has been there this season for the Cavs, but he's simply not physically able to defend at a high level. That's an issue. Your third-best player being a target for the opponent is worrisome.
There's Timofey Mozgov who played just five minutes in the second half after the Spurs outscored the Cavaliers by five points in that small span. Above all that is the fact that the Cavaliers are so offensively balanced; that's what makes them great, all the firepower. Injuries changed their team dynamic in last year's playoffs, but this game was won by the Spurs' suffocating defense and the Cavaliers could not find a way to grind out a win vs. the Spurs' high-level execution.
It's one game in January, it does not mean the Cavaliers are unable to beat the Spurs in a seven-game series should it come to that in the Finals. Nothing is decided, and the objective for every team is to be better at season's end than in November, or January or March. However, after the Warriors loss, the talk was about how close the Cavaliers were to a win despite their stars not playing all that well. The same story can be said about the loss to the Spurs, but that makes two games where that's been the story.
Was it just random happenstance that the Cavaliers' stars had off nights in the two biggest regular games of the season, or a sign of how much the Cavaliers depend on their out-of-this-world stars to blast off and reach the basketball heavens?
Either way, the Spurs' excellence that keeps pounding the rock eventually beat the Cavaliers into the ground Thursday. It's becoming more and more apparent that the Cavaliers' title hopes rest on Love, Kyrie Irving, and especially LeBron James being able to use their spectacular individual talents to achieve escape velocity against the Warriors' and Spurs' consistent gravity. If anyone has the talent to do it, it's the Cavaliers.
They just weren't able to vs. the Warriors on Christmas, or vs. the Spurs on Thursday. They remain chasing the two best teams in the league -- in the standings and in consistent execution in a season where that bar has never been higher.
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