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The success of San Antonio's D begins with Popovich's insistence that team defense--48 minutes of it--be played. The Spurs work on defensive drills deep into the postseason, "things that eighth-grade teams do," says assistant coach Mike Budenholzer. The day before Game�1, for example, they went through a four-on-four shell drill that emphasized defensive rotations; most teams do that in the preseason and then forget about it.
That leads to a defensive accountability rare in the NBA, in which open shots are the enemy. "We have a scheme that is set up to succeed," says backup point guard Jacque Vaughn, "so when there is a breakdown, you will be singled out for failure." Bowen joked that after his son was born at 9:19 a.m. last Saturday, he arrived (still wearing his hospital I.D. bracelet) at the film session "just after they finished talking about everything I had done wrong in Game 1."
To the Spurs every possession is a little game within itself, and all those little games are paramount. Let the opponent get a couple of easy baskets and Popovich will invariably call a timeout, as he did early in the fourth quarter of Game�2 when consecutive threes by Cavs guard Damon Jones cut the lead to 19. The message: Opposition runs are not O.K.; letting the other team's offense get into a rhythm is not O.K.
Yes, the Spurs have two outstanding defenders in Duncan and Bowen, but the solid schemes augment individual strengths. "Bruce is a great defender," says Cleveland guard Eric Snow, "but the biggest reason is that he has Tim Duncan and a great team defensive concept behind him." A member of the Cavs' staff, who asked for anonymity, elaborates by citing the Orlando Magic's January 2005 acquisition of Doug Christie, a perimeter defender in the mold of Bowen. " Christie didn't help them nearly as much as they thought because they didn't have a defensive system," says the staffer. "Any individual defender is far less important than the system itself."
Then, too, that system protects weaker individual defenders, such as Parker. Popovich noted the birth of six-pound, 11-ounce Ozmel Bowen by saying that two miracles had happened that weekend--the other being that Parker had actually engaged in help-side defense in Game 1. (In truth, backup guard Brent Barry said that but credited Popovich "because I'm trying to suck up to get playing time.") The fact that Parker can get overpowered by a strong offensive player is almost irrelevant because he will always have help.
Finally, executing effective rotations is often more about covering up mistakes than making a textbook play. When a defender rotates to the wrong player it's up to, as Popovich puts it, "his buddy to cover for him." One of the best at doing that is 36-year-old forward Robert Horry, who in Game�2 dashed from side to side like a commuter in a frantic search for the correct train, finishing with an overstocked stat line that read 26 minutes, five points, nine rebounds, four assists and five blocks.
Not accounted for were the times that Horry raced around the court to pick up potential open shooters. For instance, with San Antonio up 11 and about 1:30 remaining, Duncan came from under the basket to double James. Forced to give the ball up when he would have preferred to shoot, James zipped a pass toward forward Anderson Varej�o, but Horry, rotating to pick up Duncan's man, knocked it away, then took off in mad pursuit. He dived for the ball at the sideline, upending Popovich (who was not hurt) in the process. It almost didn't matter that Horry tipped it out-of-bounds and Cleveland maintained possession; the effort made the statement.
The Cavs could extract some hope from their comeback in Game 2, but, all things considered, the trip to San Antonio had been even rougher than expected for the young team, particularly for James, who shouldered the majority of the pressure as well as the defensive attention. He seized upon any opportunity to discuss a subject other than basketball, which is why he was so animated answering a question about The Sopranos, revealing his wish that Tony get away "and not worry about nothing." But James knows that it's never that easy for the head of a family, particularly when a worthy adversary has you in its sights.