Now that the euphoria has sort-of worn off (believe me, I'm still grinning like an idiot on the inside, just not on the outside . . . all the time) it's time to get to business and see how the Cavs stack up against the mighty San Antonio Spurs. Part one of my analysis leading up to Game 1 will focus on the matchups between the two teams. Without further ado:
Larry Hughes v. Tony Parker
EDGE: Parker. I do think that Larry Hughes, when healthy, could give Parker a bit of trouble. Hughes is pretty long and fairly quick on his feet. The problem is, Parker is one of the most explosive point guards in the game, and Hughes is injured. Parker is quick, has a good enough jump shot, and can penetrate very well. In his two games against the Cavs this series, Parker scored 21 points on 8 of 16 shooting and 26 points on 11 of 18 shooting. He's the one guy the Cavs haven't been able to account for this year when playing the Spurs. That said, it's worth noting that Eric Snow was our starting point guard in both of those games. I'm curious to see whether Hughes will keep playing come the Finals or whether Gibson will get the nod. If it's Gibson, I think Parker still has the edge, but it's slightly closer in that Gibson is much better offensively than Hughes and Snow (though I didn't mind seeing Larry toss in two threes in the first quarters of both Games 5 and 6!) I'm also intrigued by the idea of running the same aggressive trapping defense we ran against Chauncey Billups to try to throw Parker out of his game. Either way, Parker has the edge, but if we can control the damage he does, we should be in better position to win.
Sasha Pavlovic v. Michael Finley
EDGE: Even. Finley definitely has more experience than Pavlovic, but I think he's lost a step in recent years. He's still a pretty good shooter and can occasionally take the ball to the hole, but if Sasha was able to take on Vince Carter in the Nets series and then acquit himself reasonably well against Rip Hamilton (as well as one can) in the Pistons series, I think he can handle Finley on the defensive end. I think Sasha is the better player at this point, but I worry about his decision-making. For example, he often starts his drives from the top of the key, which means that when he actually gets to the hoop there's already a defender set up to draw the offensive foul. I'd like to see him use more pull-up jumpers (he's got a good shot) and quick passes off drives to set up other shooters on the floor. I'd also like to see him use his frame to his advantage, by drawing contact before putting up a wild shot at the rim. He's strong enough to do that--LeBron does this all the time--and it would get him more credibility with the refs than flailing to the hole wildly every time. Basically, he needs to play with more self-control. I still think he can be a devastating offensive weapon when he's on, much more so than Finley still can, but because he's inconsistent, it's a push.
LeBron James v. Bruce Bowen
EDGE: LeBron, and by a mile. Bruce Bowen has proven himself capable of defending many a prolific wing player, but LeBron is just too big and strong for him. Bowen definitely has an arsenal of "vet moves" (I would say "cheap tricks" but the Cavs are a "no-excuses" team.) But LeBron can post him up whenever he wants, and though LeBron doesn't have a refined post game by any means, you can bet someone will come to help Bowen in those situations, leaving another Cav open for a good shot. And when LeBron wants to take Bowen off the dribble, he'll be more than able to. LeBron has had several big games against the Spurs in the past, and that's without his jump shot falling the way it did in Games 4 and 5.
Drew Gooden v. Tim Duncan
EDGE: Duncan, and by a mile. I imagine Z will defend Duncan as much as Gooden does, but either way, Gooden is a good rebounder but not a great defender farther way from the basket. In the Pistons series, Rasheed Wallace had a pretty easy go of hitting turnaround jumpers from the low post, and Duncan is even more consistent with that shot. Plus, when Duncan decides to go to the rim, Gooden will probably only be able to stop him with a foul. In general, I think this matchup is similar to the LeBron-Bowen matchup: Duncan will be able to get what he wants against Gooden. I do think that if Gooden can get his jumper going, this matchup gets a tiny bit closer. The key for the Cavs will be making sure that LeBron, Sasha, and Boobie are aggressive in getting to the rim, because if we can get Duncan in foul trouble, we'll have a much better chance of staying in this. LeBron, for one, has a great chance of doing this since he has shown no hesitation in going to the rim on Duncan in the past (check out this clip--apparently a still of it is pasted over LeBron's locker) and has become slightly more consistent from the line.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas v. Fabricio Oberto
EDGE: Ilgauskas. I'll be honest--the matchup I really want to see is Oberto v. Varejao. They'll compete for style points on flops more than they'll compete for actual points. The refs won't know what to do with them! In all seriousness, Z has an advantage here. He's got a good jump shot from up to 20 feet, and in the low post, relies mostly on his hook shot, both of which don't really allow Oberto any chances to flop. I do think the Cavs are more cohesive when Ilgauskas isn't on the floor, in that they are a more athletic and explosive team. Still, Z is a great offensive rebounder and has a bunch of tip-ins every game. Oberto hasn't really done all that much during the playoffs and doesn't match up very well with Z.
Daniel Gibson v. Manu Ginobli
EDGE: Ginobli, but not by a lot. Ginobli is a fantastic player--he gets to the rim, plays with grit, and defends well enough. But he hasn't been able to get things going against the Cavs this season. Still, he has found an extra gear in the playoffs and will be a lot to handle. Gibson, though, is full of confidence, seems impervious to pressure, and has a great overall game. His three-point shooting makes LeBron that much more dangerous, plus Gibson is great at getting to the rim and either finishing or drawing contact and making free throws. LeBron loves having him on the floor and I expect him to get lots of playing time. Ginobli's a better defender, so he gets the nod here, but Gibson is playing great basketball right now.
EDGE: Spurs. The Cavs have Varejao, who's a great energy guy and solid rebounder with, let's face it, not much of an offensive game (how much did you cringe when he took that three in Game 6? YIKES!) They have Donyell Marshall, who at this point appears good for six fouls and three missed three-pointers a game. And they have Damon Jones and Eric Snow, who together would be a great player for the Cavs, but who separately have good effects on one end of the floor and pretty bad ones on the other. The Spurs have Big Shot Bob, Brent Barry (who is still a good three-point shooter), Francisco Elson (a good defender with nice intensity) and Jacque Vaughn (a playoff veteran). Their bench is the bench you want--a bunch of veteran role-players who deliver on their roles (this means you, Donyell) in addition to a few young energy guys.
Overall, I think the series is pretty even. I think Mike Brown has enough knowledge of the Spurs to make this series close. The Spurs haven't yet figured out how to stop LeBron, and even if they do, if Gibson and Pavlovic can get going, we should be able to keep them honest. The Spurs are a much better matchup than the Suns or the Mavericks--they play a similar game to the Cavs, just slightly better. I think the Spurs will win in six or seven, but the Cavs could end up surprising everyone.
RANDOM OTHER OBSERVATIONS:
1.) I love how EVERY interview LeBron does contains the phrase "I was just trying to be aggressive." My girlfriend and I get an odd kick out of this every time he says it, mostly because the interviewers always act like this is a novel and unexpected answer, despite the fact that he's given it after EVERY playoff game the Cavs have won.
2.) I'm getting a bit tired of watching the Cavs toss the ball in to Z on the first possession of every half. I'd rather we get his mid- to long-range jumper going since I think that's one area of his game where he has a comparative advantage over any other center out there.
3.) It frustrates me so much to watch Chris Webber mostly because he's on the same team as Antonio McDyess. Both were explosive, premier power forwards who suffered catastrophic knee injuries. But only one accepted his diminished skills and instead focused on other aspects of his game where he could still contribute, in addition to becoming a great teammate and a genuinely nice guy. The other, despite having an ugly overall game, still seems to think he's the best player on the court, whines about not getting enough touches, and complains to the refs constantly. Gee, I wonder which is which.