Who saw this coming? Well the guys at thepaintedarea.com for one, but few others. My instincts tell me that San Antonio will have no problem, but I'm tired of sleeping on the Cavaliers, who I think pose some interesting match up difficulties for the Spurs. In fact, both teams have questions in matching up with their foe:
Where will Lebron get his points? While the Pistons were known as a great defensive team, they did not show it in the conference finals. The Spurs’ interior D is not going to give up the kind of penetration that Rasheed Wallace felt compelled to ignore in game five. Furthermore, San Antonio’s disciplined rotation schemes are going to allow them to recover when Lebron penetrates and dishes, I don’t expect Gibson to go off game 6 style against the Spurs. Because of these two factors, Cleveland is going to live and die by Lebron’s midrange jump shot. Over the course of the Pistons series, James has shown that he has the ability to take, and make, the types of difficult shots that Kobe is known for. With Bowen covering him, James is going to have a tough time muscling his way into the post, and Duncan’s help is going to stop easy buckets off penetration. Until the Spurs start to send hard doubles at Lebron (on cnnsi.com, Tony Parker claims that the Spurs are opting for single coverage to start), James’ best scoring opportunities are going to come from jump shots. If Lebron can continue to make these, a lot of pressure will be taken off the rest of Cleveland’s offense. Something to note is that this is the first time throughout the playoffs that Bowen gets a defensive assignment that will rely on his strength more than his (diminished) quickness. While I expect Bowen to do better here than he did with his stints on Deron Williams, he has had trouble with Kobe in the past and might have more trouble with Lebron that people expect.
Who guards Tim Duncan and can Varejao fit into the offense? The way I see it, Duncan is too quick for Ilgauskas, and much too big for everyone else in the Cavs starting five. I expect hard doubles as long as Varejao is off the floor. However, Varejao has shown himself to be one of the league’s more reliable post defenders, and if he can deal with Duncan single coverage, the Cavaliers will be much better for it. With Varejao the question is, and always has been, whether he can play without bogging down Cleveland’s offence. I expect Varejao to get major minutes in this series, perhaps even more than the 26 he averaged in the Detroit series, it will be interesting to see how Cleveland’s offense works with him on the floor (can you even run the pick and roll with him, or do you send him to the far corner, running the P&R with Gooden instead?).
How do the Spurs guard the Cavs front line and which Drew Gooden will we see? I expect the Spurs to put Duncan on Gooden and use Oberto and Elson to use their quickness to bother Big Z. I think Elson will be especially useful in using his length, he is one of the few guys with arms long enough to really bother Ilgauskas. In the Utah series, however, it was Oberto who got the bulk of the minutes (31), while Elson languished on the bench. Pop has shown great aptitude at playing each of his center’s to their strengths, using them when the match up is most appropriate, thus I expect to see more of Elson this series, at least on defense (see below). Related to this is the question of Gooden, who has played significantly worse as the playoffs have gone on. Gooden netted only 9 ppg in the Pistons series, down from 14 in the Washington series. Even more important is the dip in rebounding, Gooden went from grabbing 10 a game in the first two rounds to just 5 in the Conference Finals. Its not like Duncan is going to make his life easier either, Timmy is, after all, one of the world’s best post defenders. However, if Duncan is forced to slide over and help on James’ penetrations, perhaps Gooden will get a few more open looks than he did with Wallace on him. Wallace was loath to slide over and help (explaining Lebron’s lay-up clinic in game 5), but the Spurs are going to want Duncan to help, giving Gooden a few open looks.
Should the Spurs run? YES! The Spurs are not known as a running team, but they are starting to get a reputation as a team that can play at any speed, shown most clearly in the Phoenix series this year. The Cavs defense absolutely smothers the pick and roll, as we saw against New Jersey, and I expect them to give Parker and Duncan trouble when they attempt to run the Spurs’ offense. In fact, with their combination of front court quickness and back court size, the Cavs are better equipped to deal with San Antiono’s pick and roll than any team not from Dallas. If their bread and butter isn’t their, how will the Spurs respond? How about going small, playing stretches with Parker, Manu, Bowen, Finley/Barry, and Duncan/Oberto, running the ball and forcing Cleveland to take one of their bigs off the floor? Parker and Ginobili form one of the best (and most underrated) running back courts in the game, and with Finley or Barry to spread the floor and Duncan and Oberto sprinting to finish long passes, the Spurs might want to do their Phoenix imitation in an effort to win the series.
All and all, I think Cleveland presents and interesting challenge for San Antonio, but the Spurs are playing as well as they ever have. Besides, San Antonio always wins in the odd years!
Spurs in 6