You’re on, LeBron: James arrives on NBA’s ultimate stage
SAN ANTONIO (AP) — LeBron James will attract the spotlight. The San Antonio Spurs have earned it. While most of the hype surrounding these NBA finals is centered on James, Cleveland’s crowned king of roundball, the Spurs are again being overshadowed despite winning three titles since 1999. There’s nothing seductive about them. They don’t run and gun like the Phoenix Suns. Tim Duncan, their resident superstar, doesn’t aspire to be a global icon or featured in any sneaker commercials. TV viewers channel surf right past their games. The Spurs get no respect. “We are kind of the vanilla of the NBA,” guard Manu Ginobli said. And every few years they’re the favorite flavor. On Thursday, the Spurs will begin their quest for a fourth championship as they host the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 of the NBA finals, a series being billed as King James’ coming-out party but one that just as easily could turn into another Spurs coronation. “This definitely is a model franchise,” said Cavs coach Mike Brown, a San Antonio assistant when the club won its last title in 2005. “We can’t be the Spurs. We don’t have the same makeup as them or anything like that.” The Cavaliers do have James, and that could be enough.
Tagged as the new face of the league and saddled with immense expectations since entering the league four years ago, James arrived at basketball’s ultimate stage on Wednesday full of confidence. The climactic setting is a new one for the Cavaliers, who are making their first appearance in the finals since joining the league in 1970. After walking onto the floor adorned with finals logos, a few of Cleveland’s players documented their visit with videocameras as an international media descended upon them. It was only four years ago when the Cavs won 17 games while playing in front of as many empty seats as filled ones at home. “It was like we weren’t even in the NBA,” said center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, drafted by the club in 1996. “We were in a deep depression as an organization.” Those gloomy days were B.LB. — Before LeBron. The 22-year-old has been a household name in the U.S. since he was an Akron, Ohio, high school phenomenon, and his growing popularity has made him just as well known on the playgrounds of Beijing. In these playoffs, his second trip to the postseason, James has elevated his multidimensional game to a higher level, pushing the Cavaliers within four victories of Cleveland’s first major sports title since 1964. His appearance in the best-of-seven series should do wonders for the NBA’s globalization plan. Undoubtedly, he’ll also boost TV ratings, perhaps tempting casual viewers interested in seeing if he can match his jaw-dropping, 48-point performance in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against Detroit. It’s as if Michael Jordan, the more famous tongue-wagging No. 23, has resurfaced. Not quite. Not yet. With most of the attention focused on James, the other team in this LeBronian lovefest isn’t getting its proper due. But hasn’t that always been the case for the Spurs, standing at the edge of another title. “The league is about new, exciting things,” Spurs forward Michael Finley said. “And LeBron is that thing right now.” The Spurs are still, well, the Spurs. They have always won with defense, and still do. The league’s stingiest defensive squad during the regular season must figure out how to slow James, who sliced up the Pistons for 25.7 points, 9.2 rebounds and 8.5 assists in six games. Detroit tried to double- and triple-team the 6-foot-8, 245-pounder, whose ability to pass over the top of defenders allowed him to find wide-open teammates for easy shots. Spurs forward Bruce Bowen will be assigned to guard James, but he’ll need help, especially when James decides to post him up near the basket. “Any way I can gain 40 pounds overnight?” Bowen joked. On his last visit deep in the heart of Texas, James scored 35 points with 11 rebounds and four assists on the Spurs. He also posterized a defenseless Duncan with a vicious dunk — a photo he has on the wall near his locker in Cleveland. James won’t have it easy as the Spurs likely will blitz him wherever and whenever he touches the ball.
“They work well together on the defensive end,” he said. “You know if you beat one guy, another guy steps up.”
Not long ago, the thought was that James needed a superstar sidekick, a player like Jordan had in Scottie Pippen. Turns out, James might have all he needs. “We’ve had different guys step up in different games,” Ilgauskas said. “So LeBron hasn’t had to count on just one guy. There’s always somebody else scoring, somebody else rebounding. We might not have other superstars, but we got other guys who play good basketball.” Ceaselessly confident, James isn’t showing any pre-finals jitters. The whole world might be watching to see what he’ll do, but that’s nothing new. In the past, the spotlight has been a warming place — not one to shun. Jordan was 28 when he won his first title; Duncan was 23. This might be James’ year, it might not be. But Brown says it will eventually happen. “He’s too talented, too driven not to win one,” Brown said. “I agree with the talk that in order to be quote-unquote, one of the best players in the world, you should have one of those on your resume, if not more. “It’s a matter of time for him.”