Sunday, June 10, 2007

NBA Finals: Game 2

Spurs 103, Cavaliers 92
Spurs lead series 2-0

If you're anything like me and feel like, somehow, your personal pride has been wounded when your team loses on the big stage, may I suggest something:

Don't read the papers Monday. Don't read the national Web sites. Don't watch SportsCenter. You know what's coming.

Bill Simmons pointing and laughing at what a joke the Cavs are. Sam Smith of the Chicago Tribune harrumphing about how LeBron James will be lucky to be the next John Starks, let alone Michael Jordan.

From Stephen A. Smith to Ric Bucher, Charley Rosen to Kelly Dwyer, and even some of our own Cleveland faithful, the scoffs will come in every way, shape and form:

"The Cavs are the worst team in Finals history. LeBron James is a world-class failure on basketball's biggest stage. They don't belong here. LeBron doesn't belong here. They got here because of a stroke of luck in playoff seeding and because the Pistons beat themselves. They'll be lucky to ever make it back. Can we please see the Spurs play a real team now? Pretty please?"

And I'm sugarcoating it for the sake of brevity.

You know it's coming. It will be merciless, and in the case of Simmons and Rosen, downright cruel. Don't put yourself through it. Hate mail will only make it worse, especially in the case of Simmons, who is notoriously thin-skinned and needs to respond to e-mailed insults with vicious public putdowns.

(The more I read Simmons, the more I think his attitude is garbage about 95 percent of the time. It seems all he ever does is trash other cities' teams and players and whine every time the slightest thing goes wrong in Boston. But that's another column for another time.)

You don't need to listen to the yahoos who will make it seem like you are stupid for even trying to root for the Cavs. While some of them have a basic idea or two right, most of what they have said and will say is overstated for dramatic effect.

The national columnists who will tell you that the Cavs are the worst NBA Finals team ever have this right: The Cavs' offense is not NBA Finals-caliber. It really isn't even playoff-caliber. The only thing that saves Cleveland's offense is LeBron James and the occasional hot shooting streak from Daniel Gibson or Sasha Pavlovic.

In two games against the Spurs, that much has been revealed. The Cavs simply cannot match San Antonio basket for basket. To even try is an exercise in futility.

The simple fact is that the Cavs have been lugging their offense around like dead weight all season. In order for the Cavs to turn the corner and win a championship, that needs to change, whether it's in the next two weeks or next two years.

You simply need to have an offense that doesn't require LeBron to play out of his mind in order to have a chance to win a road playoff game in Detroit, or San Antonio, or anyplace else where road playoff wins come around only slightly more often than Halley's Comet.

But the Cavs do have a saving grace, and it's why, despite the hailstorm of criticism that awaits Mike Brown between now and the Cavs' next win, I am happy to have him coaching here.

Their defense is very much NBA Finals-caliber. Two years ago, this team didn't even play defense. Now, they have the best defense in the Eastern Conference. Somehow, Brown took a giant lump of Play-Doh and turned it into fine sculpture.

Look at the players he had to work with: LeBron (didn't get to the NBA on his defense), Pavlovic (offense is his defense), Drew Gooden (pretty much the anti-Ben Wallace), Zydrunas Ilgauskas (tall, lumbering center with screws in his feet), Larry Hughes (shooting guard playing point), Eric Snow (good defender, but 34 years old), Donyell Marshall, Damon Jones and Anderson Varejao (umm ... yeah) and turned them into a team that can not only hold its own defensively, but can dominate stretches of games with defense.

Not one single dominant defensive player in the lot. No Wallace, no Ron Artest, no Bruce Bowen. But they play defense well as a team, and it has carried them to the Finals, where, unfortunately, they've run into a vastly more experienced Spurs team that does everything better.

The pessimists would say that this is about all Brown can expect to squeeze out of a noticeably-flawed roster, and next year, who knows? Detroit might rebound, so might Miami, Chicago might add a huge piece this off-season. The 2008 NBA Finals are guaranteed to no team.

You'd be right to a point. The Cavs do have a flawed roster. They don't have a true point guard. They don't have a scorer to compliment LeBron. They don't have a good offensive game plan. These things need to be addressed.

But as these playoffs have progressed, I am starting to believe in Brown's system. Yes, the Cavs did get the easier of two roads through the Eastern Conference playoffs, but with Cleveland's reputation for playing to the level of their competition, who is to say beating New Jersey was a given? And can we all agree that, despite the fact Detroit didn't have their best series, the Cavs must have been doing something right to win four straight games?

My feeling is this: The fact that the Cavs are in the NBA Finals with the roster they have speaks volumes to what Brown has done in two years at the helm. Somehow, Brown took what is honestly a Spackle-and-paste roster meant to cover up years upon years of horrible drafts in a short amount of time, with LeBron as his only major asset, and coached them well enough on the defensive end to get them to the Finals, truth be told, ahead of schedule.

If Danny Ferry can address a couple of his team's roster needs this summer, and Brown's defensive philosophy truly has taken root with LeBron and the other team leaders, to the point that this has become "The Cavalier Way," we might enter the 2007-08 season with the Cavs as the alpha dog in the East.

Win or lose, this is valuable experience for LeBron and Company. If they make it back to the Finals in the near future, this will no longer be the great unknown. The jitters that have caused them to fall apart so readily in the first two games of this series won't exist. Plus they'll have a very good idea of what it takes to get there, and do it year after year.

And that's what LeBron has needed all along, as has Brown. That first taste of playing and coaching for a title. It might not end with the same success that Dwyane Wade received last year when his Heat were the beneficiaries of one of the more epic meltdowns in Finals history from the Dallas Mavericks. But it's progress, even if it comes in the form of being dominated by a blatantly superior team.

Those are my reasons to hope. I don't believe I'm grasping at straws as the Cavs' 2007 title hopes begin to fall away. I'm looking at something beyond one single Finals run. I'm looking at a coach who is starting to build a team culture meant to promote winning over the long haul, a system like the one that has allowed the Spurs to thrive for almost a decade.

For a Cavs organization that was one step away from total disarray a little over four years ago, it is an incredible turnaround, one that is both of LeBron and for LeBron, ignited by him and meant to keep him around long enough so that someday, there are multiple NBA championship trophies in the Cavs front office.

A championship run might not start this year. But a large and very important step has been achieved by even getting to the Finals four years after finishing a 17-65 season. The Cavs are starting to believe: In each other, in the system, and in their coach.

Up next: Game 3, Tuesday, 9 p.m. at Quicken Loans Arena


gk said...

I'm usually a glass is half empty kind of guy when it comes to Cleveland sports (I think most of us are). But you're absolutely right about how the knee-jerk ntnl media is taking a 2-0 series lead and blowing it way out of proportion. The last two NBA finals have started out with a 2-0 start. In both cases the other team came back to even the series, and in last year's case, win it.

I don't remember anyone suggesting that Miami was the worst finals team of all time (how quickly we forget the 90's) when they were down 0-2 and almost 0-3.

If the Cavs win game 3 at home, the media will totally swing back, talking about how tenacious the Cavs are, just like after the Pistons series.

And if they lose, like you said, it'll be a good learning experience for a very young team.

Zach said...

For the record, I'm boycotting ESPN until the Cavs get a win. Stephen A. Smith is annoying enough as it is, without him telling me my team blows.
Sadly I miss out on the crazy antics of Steve Phillips, who apparently had a debate with himself last evening on Baseball Tonight.
What a mastermind that guy is.