For the Spurs, last night's game was just another game -- just another chance for the Spurs to try to find a rotation and a gameplan that works. The Spurs are notorious for not really peaking into true "championship" form until the last few months of the season -- they tinker and tinker and then finally the switch clicks and they get it going.
For the Cavs, last night's game meant a lot. After being trounced by the Spurs in the NBA Finals, and then humiliated nationally as the "worst NBA finals team ever," a rematch against the Spurs was a chance for some sort of redemption. For LeBron, it was a chance to show off all the tools he's worked on during the offseason.
Which is why it wasn't surprising that the Cavs fought back hard during the second quarter to take a lead (though it was surprising that the Cavs did that totally without LeBron). I do think that sometimes the second unit moves the ball better without LeBron, only because guys don't default into giving him the ball and letting him stand at the top of the key. When LeBron does move as much as he did at points last night, trying to establish post presence and catch the ball inside the three point line, he's much more effective.
What was surprising was the intensity of the end. I think the Spurs came in thinking that they could coast a bit and that the game didn't really matter -- but by the third quarter they started to play with pride. And look at the plays they won it on: 1.) A sweet 22 foot jumper from LeBron (a shot he had a lot of trouble with last year, even though the Spurs always gave it to him), a nice "hockey assist" pass from LeBron to Larry to Boobie Gibson for a big three (hey, a Cav who consistently makes big threes! You hear that, Donyell?), and good defensive intensity by the Cavs on the Ginobli drive at the buzzer (hey, they actually kept defensive focus). These are signs that the Cavs actually have improved from earlier this season and last season, and are finally rounding into shape. As Brian Windhorst points out, this may be the first time we've beat both Dallas and San Antonio on the road -- believe it or not, the Cavs have a lot of focus this year in big games because they have something to prove.
A few more discrete observations:
1.) I love the fact that LeBron has worked on his jumper, but I think he needs to calm down just a touch with it. The last few games it's looked like he thinks he plays for Golden State -- he keeps hoisting up wild threes fairly early in the shot clock. He did it last night and almost ended up letting the game go to OT with his miss. He did it a bunch against Charlotte. Obviously if he hits those shots, they're huge daggers -- but I wish he would recognize that the "daggers" he's hit throughout his career are rarely threes, and are instead strong drives to the basket that only he can finish (see the Washington series two years back, the insane game against Detroit last year, etc.)
2.) Daniel Gibson is a fantastic three point shooter, but I'd really like to see him add a bit more versatility to his game. He's got a great outside shot, and a good ability to take a few dribbles inside the three point line and hit a jumper. But he's not yet adept at creating shots for himself off the ball beyond moving to open spots for threes. I'd like to see him try to do a bit more Rip Hamilton (which is tough because he's not as tall, but he is quicker) and work off curls to get more midrange jumpers -- he's the only Cav who really consistently makes those when he takes them.
3.) I respect the hell out of the Spurs, but I find it weird that every time I see LeBron go up for a jumper, there's miraculously a foot under him when he lands. The "Bruce Bowen" school of defense.
4.) I wonder if Larry Hughes is turning into Eric Snow. Think about it -- he's a great defensive player (more on that below) but he is not the best offensively, to say the least. Though, unlike Eric Snow, he isn't mortally afraid to take a shot.
5.) Last night we actually saw a good effort by Larry, believe it or not. Parker's not all there, but I think Larry showed why he is an effective defender in the NBA and why we really missed him in the finals last year -- he's long and big enough to keep Parker in front of him, and he has the quick hands to force a steal or two on the crossovers. Also, it's tough to describe, but I think Larry is an inherently better shooter the less he thinks about it. The few times I've seen him really "pure" a jumper this year are plays like the one he had in the third quarter last night, where on a fast break he pulls up, catches a pass, and shoots it in one motion. The vast majority of times he's bricked shots are when he tries to create the shot on his own. I'd like to see Larry speed up his release a bit more when he comes off curls and shoot without dribbling -- I think that's more of his natural game.
6.) I will write more about this in a later post, but I'm a bit bummed about the Cavs trade situation. First, I think it's beyond hilarious that Isiah almost traded Jamal Crawford for Larry Hughes. I used to joke about Larry being a perfect fit in NY because he is an overpaid wing player who is a bit past his prime -- but never thought they would actually think about making a move for him. In other news, my hunch is that the Bibby trade won't happen, even though I wish it would. Sigh.
7.) Finally, a quick note -- after watching the Lakers game last night, I am beyond pissed that the Cavs whiffed on the Shannon Brown pick. Jordan Farmar would have been PERFECT. First of all, what did the Cavs need then? A PG who's not afraid to take an outside shot. So, naturally, they took Shannon Brown. And, second, what is Farmar's game? He has a good outside shot, is a above-average passer, and a good handle. How did we mess this up? How? Imagine what this Cavs team would look like with Farmar at the point, if only to spell Larry Hughes.