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The 2007 NBA Finals has a family feel. First, there's the kinship between the two staffs-- Cleveland Cavaliers coach Mike Brown worked for, and general manager Danny Ferry played for, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who learned many of his X's and O's at the elbow of Cavs assistant Hank Egan, his mentor at the Air Force Academy.
More literally, between Games 1 and 2, a son, Ozmel, was born to Spurs forward Bruce Bowen and wife Yardley; another son, as yet unnamed, was on the way for Cleveland forward LeBron James and girlfriend Savannah Brinson. "I'm expecting any day," said James last Saturday. "Well, I'm not. That would be kind of weird."
As James geared up for Game 2 at the AT&T Center on Sunday night, the fortunes of another family weighed on him, too: The final episode of The Sopranos, which Savannah had been instructed to TiVo, began just before James exchanged pregame shugs with the Spurs at center court. For the record, James believed (and hoped) that Tony would not meet his Maker.
At week's end, though, it was James and his crew who found themselves close to being whacked. After holding LeBron to 14 points in a series-opening 85-76 victory last Thursday, the Spurs bottled him up for three quarters of Game 2, building a 29-point lead en route to a 103-92 win. (Game 3 was scheduled for Tuesday night at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.) It is no surprise that James failed to conquer a San Antonio defense that is far more synergistic than, and almost as lethal as, a certain New Jersey crime family. But that hardly made the dual setbacks any more palatable for the Chosen One. (LeBron, not Tony.)
"We've been down 2-0 before," James said on Sunday night, referring to the Eastern Conference finals, "so we have to find a way to bring the intensity that we did in the fourth quarter tonight [when the Cavs outscored the home team 30-14] and carry it into Game�3." Brave words, but even James didn't sound fully convinced: Coming back against the determined Spurs will be a much taller order than taking four straight from the fractious Detroit Pistons.
Though guard Manu Gin�bili rightly describes his team as "a good vanilla, not a boring vanilla," America has never developed a taste for the Spurs. The league had hoped, though, that James's story�line--22-year-old superstar straps on the armor and tries to lay siege to the three-time champs--would move the interest dial. Well, James charged, San Antonio repelled him, and viewers remained unengaged. It wasn't just that The Sopranos buried (poor choice of words) Game�2, the former watched by more than 11 million people (based on overnight ratings), the latter by about 8�million; but Game�1 had also been a disaster, drawing only 9.2�million viewers.
In fact, you might have heard as much about Tony Parker's upcoming wedding to actress Eva Longoria as you have about his play, which has been sterling. The Spurs' point guard hit 25 of 43 shots (58.1%) in scoring a series-high 57 points over the first two games, repeatedly slithering his slender 6' 2'' body into the lane despite Cleveland's stated objective to keep him out of it. James offered a commonsense response when asked why it was so difficult to stem Parker's drives: "If every team knew the answer, he wouldn't lead the league in points in the paint." Much of the time Brown put the 6' 8'', 240-pound James on Parker in an attempt to bully him and limit his sight lines on passes. The Cavs weren't the first team to find that stratagem unsuccessful, and through two games Parker was the odds-on favorite to be Finals MVP.
Though the Frenchman is primarily a slasher, six of his 13 field goals in Game�2 were perimeter jumpers, one a three-pointer. His improved outside touch speaks to the perspicacity of the Spurs, who brought in Chip Engelland as a shooting coach before the 2005-06 season primarily to work with Parker. One of the first things Engelland noticed was that Parker had better form on his teardrop (the high-arcing floater he uses in the lane to shoot over big men) than he did on his jumper. On the teardrop, his hand at release was straight (rather than crooked) and his thumb was wide (rather than pinched), providing a more secure grip. "So we linked the teardrop to the jump shot," says Engelland, "and his outside touch improved."
Attention to detail also characterizes a San Antonio defense built on subtle and split-second reactions rather than on spectacular steals and shot blocking, a defense that moves, as Egan says, "like it's on a string." Even forward Tim Duncan's rejections are studies in positioning and balance rather than gaudy swattage--he often permits a driver to get a step on him, then taps the ball away from behind, like a teacher letting a mischievous student know that he can't get away with anything.
Constant double teams forced James to give up the ball out front in Game�1, so the Cavs began running him along the baseline and posting him up on Sunday, getting the ball to him later but theoretically in a better position to do something. The change helped James a little, but he still looked uncomfortable in hitting only nine of his 21 shots. With the 6' 7" Bowen bearing primary responsibility, the Spurs continued to double- and triple-team James, who scored 25 points but also had six turnovers, all of them in the second half.