This was a game that was definitely circled on the calendar of both teams. I imagine the day LeBron arrived in Cleveland, each team immediately pulled out their (digital equivalent to a) calendar and (clicked the button that simulates drawing a) circled each of the two meetings. Their first matchup on Nov. 19th was electric and ended with LeBron coming up just short, only increasing the anticipation for the sequel. With each team playing well leading up to the game, the hype began to mount.
The Cavs were 20-5 in their last 25. The Spurs were on a 6 game win streak and looking scary. The only storyline that could possibly top the game itself was whether or not LeBron would wear a headband. (He did not. And that scared me due to our history on the issue).
The first quarter lived up to the billing and then some. Both teams came out moving the ball, playing fast, and scoring like George Gervin’s ABA years. It was 20-18 midway through the first when Manu checked in to take on LeBron in a battle of hairlines. Two of the guys who’ve faced the most NBA writer/fan criticism (Kevin Love and Parker) came out like they had something to prove in the opening frame, but went on antithetical trajectories for the remainder.
The Cavs shot 50% while the Spurs shot nearly 60% to start the game and Popovich mirrored Kawhi’s minutes to LeBron’s, resulting in them mainly cancelling each other out in the first. Kyrie Irving had his most human quarter of the night with only 6 points.
In the second quarter, both teams seemed to feel the gravity and magnitude of the game and a playoff atmosphere descended upon the AT&T Center. LeBron bodied into Kawhi, who gave nary an inch and returned just as much to back to him.
Kawhi showed no hint of fear or awe against the best player in the NBA . They each ran a 4-5 pick-and-roll (depending on how you want to classify them; small power forwards or large wings), taking the center to the basket on a mismatch. First LeBron, then Kawhi, then LeBron ran the floor to retaliate, Kawhi then responded, culminating in great Kawhi defense and a James airball. It was a classic and beautiful duel over the course of a few minutes. It was poetry.
The dueling mentality then shifted to the point guards. Kyrie Irving scored 14 straight points for the Cavs as Parker scored or assisted on 18 of the 20 Spurs points checking into the second. As Parker continued to blow by Irving, Kyrie seemed to--like the Pokemon move Bide--absorb it and release it threefold.
The second half started with a scrappy tone and a double foul was immediately called on a sparring mass of elbows and chest bumps called Leonard and James. The teams continued to trade shots, Parker and Leonard (with some Danny Green and Duncan for good measure) against Kyrie and LeBron (with some Mozgov). The Spurs had a few close calls go against them and looked just a shade off, but managed an overall great third quarter, fixing one of their largest problem areas this season. They came out of a low-scoring third (outscoring the Cavs 20-17) up by 5.
Both teams played playoff-level minutes (each with 3 days rest and the Magic/Timberwolves next), LeBron, Love, Irving, Duncan, Parker, and Leonard all with more than 27 minutes heading into the fourth. The fourth quarter began with the Spurs bench keeping pace with the Cavs best as LeBron/Irving scored for Cleveland while Splitter, Diaw, and Belinelli scored for the Spurs. As each team got their best unit on the floor (though the Spurs had Marco in lieu of a big - and probably in place of a sick Manu) the Cavs didn’t even look towards their "off-season prize" Kevin Love. The Cavs went into Hero Ball towards the end of the stretch with which every player between James and Irving had the ball, immediately attacking.
Danny Green hit a big 3-pointer to put Spurs up 9 and hit the technical free throw after LeBron was sanctioned for complaining about a no-call. Duncan put the Spurs up by 9, but the Cavs were simply not going away. Tony Parker hit what appeared to be the dagger to put the Spurs up by 6, but Kyrie Irving retaliated with an impossible, superbly-defended 3. Kawhi Leonard then grabbed an offensive rebound and was fouled with a chance to put the game away with 4 seconds remaining. There was an eerie déjà vu as Leonard missed both, before Irving hit a buzzer-beating 3 to send the game to overtime. The Cavs finished regulation on an 11-2 run.
After four of the best quarters of basketball I have ever seen, it was only fitting that an equally memorable overtime would take place. After another of his many circus shots put the Cavs up 116-113, Danny Green tied things up with a 3. The next trip down the court, LeBron responded with his own triple. Tony Parker then missed another costly free throw after a great finish to set up a potential and-1. Kyrie responded with a step-back, cross-over, off-balance 3, but Parker immediately answered with a jump shot. After a Kyrie free throw was waved off as the Cavs weren’t in the bonus, LeBron hit a 3-pointer to truly ice the game for the Cavs.
- After being dominated on the glass in the second half against the Raptors, the Spurs had their hands full with great offensive rebounders Tristan Thompson and Mozgof. They ended up rebounding really well down the stretch.
- The Cavs, and especially Irving, negated great defense hitting some really tough shots. At least half of Irving’s (Career and NBA season-high) 57 points came on low percentage, extreme athleticism plays.
- I don’t think the Cavs can beat the Spurs 4 times out of seven, even if Kyrie plays like tonight's mashup of Kobe+Iverson+Reggie Miller+Jordan combined a few times. They outlasted a few Steph "heat checks go in from 40 feet" games.
The Spurs should have another winning streak over the next four games (Timberwolves, Knicks, Bucks, and Celtics) before heading to Atlanta to take on coach Bud and the Hawks next Sunday.