NBA Finals Preview - San Antonio vs. Cleveland

NBA Finals Preview - San Antonio vs. Cleveland

NBA Finals Preview - San Antonio vs. Cleveland
June 3rd, 2007

(Sports Network) - Superstar LeBron James and the Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers make their first-ever trip to the NBA Finals, as they battle the Western Conference's San Antonio Spurs in a best-of-seven series.

The first two games of the series will be played at the AT&T Center, while Games 3, 4 and 5 (if necessary) will take place at Quicken Loans Arena. If the set goes to a sixth and seventh game, San Antonio would host those contests.

During the regular season, Cleveland defeated the Spurs twice. The Cavaliers picked up an 88-81 victory on November 3, 2006 at the AT&T Center and edged San Antonio, 82-78, on January 2nd in front of their home crowd.

San Antonio, which was seeded third in the Western Conference, has advanced to the NBA Finals for the fourth time in franchise history and is a perfect 3-0 in this round. The Spurs defeated the New York Knicks in five in 1999, the New Jersey Nets in six in 2003 and the Detroit Pistons in seven in 2005.

The Spurs, who lost in seven to the Dallas Mavericks in last year's semifinals, knocked out No. 6 Denver in five games in the opening round, survived a tough six-game series with the second-seeded Suns and crushed No. 4 Utah in five games. San Antonio is in the postseason for the 10th straight year.

All-Stars Tim Duncan, who has been on all four of San Antonio's squads that have reached the finals, and Tony Parker are having excellent playoffs for the Spurs. Duncan leads the club in scoring (23.2 ppg) and rebounding (11.4 rpg), while Parker is averaging 19.8 points and a team-best 6.4 assists per game.

While Duncan and Parker are playing at the top of their games, Manu Ginobili has been solid and played his best ball of the postseason against Phoenix in the semis. Ginobili is averaging 16.4 points, 5.4 boards and 4.0 assists in the postseason.

Veteran Michael Finley has also done his part during San Antonio's run to the championship round. The 6-7 Finley has posted 13.1 points, 3.1 rebounds and is shooting over 46 percent from beyond the arc.

San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich, who has led the Spurs to three NBA championships during his tenure in San Antonio and was named the 2002-2003 NBA Coach of the Year, knows how to get the most out of his team and once again has figured out how to get them to the brink of earning a fourth championship.

The Spurs are 7-2 at home and 5-2 on the road in this year's playoffs.

Cleveland, which lost in seven to Detroit in last year's East semis, has advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. James has stepped up to the next level and has carried the Cavaliers, who were the second seed in the Eastern Conference, throughout the playoffs. They swept No. 7 Washington, 4-0, in the quarterfinals, beat New Jersey in six in the semis and surprised the top-seeded Pistons in six in the conference finals.

The 22-year-old James, who scored Cleveland's final 25 points and finished with 48 in Game 5s thrilling double-overtime victory over Detroit in the East finals, has been phenomenal in the postseason. He leads the Cavaliers in scoring (25.8 ppg) and assists (8.3 apg) in the playoffs.

Rookie Daniel Gibson has also stepped up for the Cavaliers. The Texas product came through big time against Detroit, as he hit clutch threes and has been productive while fellow guard Larry Hughes has battled through a heel injury. Gibson posted 13.5 points per game in the East finals and made 50 percent of his attempts from three-point range.

Center Zydrunas Ilgauskas is averaging 13.8 points and a club-high 9.5 rebounds in the postseason for Cleveland, while power forward Drew Gooden has been tough on the boards and has collected 11.1 points and 7.9 rebounds.

Cavaliers head coach Mike Brown, who completed his second campaign on the Cleveland bench, continues to do an excellent job. Brown, who earned a championship ring as an assistant with San Antonio in 2003, is 19-10 in the postseason.

Cleveland is 7-1 as the host and 5-3 as the visitor in this year's postseason.

FRONTCOURT: Duncan continues to show why he is one of the elite forwards in the game, while Fabricio Oberto has been a physical presence in the middle and Bruce Bowen knows his role and takes a lot of pride in his defensive work.

Bowen will follow James, who has grabbed 8.3 rebounds per game during the postseason, around and make sure he has to work hard for every shot that he takes. Ilgauskas and Gooden will have to pick up their production on offense, as the Spurs will be very physical with James and play very tough team defense. James may be too big for Bowen, but the rest of the Spurs will be ready to help out.

The Pistons defense couldn't handle James. Expect San Antonio to bang James more, and commit hard fouls when Cleveland's superstar takes the ball to the hoop.

As great as James has been, Duncan, believe it or not, has been equally impressive. The San Antonio forward is just not as flashy. The veteran Spurs have been here before, and experience will be a big factor in this matchup.

EDGE: SPURS

BACKCOURT: Parker has been doing it all and runs Popovich's offense almost to perfection. Finley excels in transition and should have another strong series against the Cavaliers.

Hughes, who is averaging 12.6 points and 4.1 rebounds in the playoffs, hurt his heel in the Detroit series and is not playing at 100 percent. Sasha Pavlovic is 6-7 and should be effective against San Antonio because of his size.

This could be the series where Parker takes over. The Cavaliers will have trouble keeping up with him, which will allow the middle to open up for Duncan. Parker is the difference in this matchup and will have a major impact on the outcome of this series.

EDGE: SPURS

BENCH: The 36-year-old Horry, who is averaging 4.6 points and 3.7 boards in the postseason, is there when the Spurs need him. Horry has won six championship rings in his career, and seems to play his best basketball during this time of year. Horry will once again be ready to hit the big shot when San Antonio needs a bucket.

Ginobili is the spark for Popovich off the bench. He is instant offense and has been playing well for Popovich. Versatile guard Brent Barry can play both guard spots and small forward, while the athletic Francisco Elson will help Oberto handle Ilgauskas.

Gibson, forwards Donyell Marshall, Anderson Varejao, who is averaging 5.6 points and 6.1 boards in the postseason, and guard Eric Snow give Brown a solid bench. Marshall is capable of getting hot from long distance, while the 6-10 Varejao's physical style of play in the paint will be a big asset against the Spurs.

The Cavaliers need Gibson to continue his stellar play, while Snow is a veteran and has made it to the NBA Finals twice during his career. Snow was a member of the 1995-96 Seattle SuperSonics, who lost to the Chicago Bulls in six in the finals, and the 2000-01 Philadelphia 76ers, who fell in five to the Lakers.

Cleveland's bench has come through in the clutch throughout the playoffs. Marshall came alive against New Jersey, while Gibson and Varejao shined in the conference finals. Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, the playoff-tested Spurs are just too strong in this matchup as well. San Antonio is mentally tough and won't fold under the pressure in any situation that may arise.

EDGE: SPURS

PREDICTION: Duncan and the Spurs earn their fourth championship. It will be extremely hard for Cleveland to handle Parker, who will have no problem scoring and handing out assists in this series. LeBron has been great in the playoffs, and will prevent San Antonio from sweeping the Cavaliers. The Spurs will simply be too much for Cleveland to handle.

SPURS IN FIVE

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Re: NBA Finals Preview - San Antonio vs. Cleveland

Position-by-position matchups for the NBA finals
June 3, 2007

A position-by-position look at the matchups in the NBA finals between the San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers.
   
CENTER: Fabricio Oberto vs. Zydrunas Ilgauskas. The Spurs rarely run plays for Oberto, but he makes the most of his chances, shooting 67 percent in the postseason. He had three double-figure scoring games in the Western Conference finals. Ilgauskas, still one of the best offensive centers in the Eastern Conference, is shooting 52.5 percent in the playoffs. The Cavs usually look for him early in each half. Edge: Cavaliers.

POWER FORWARD: Tim Duncan vs. Drew Gooden. A three-time NBA finals MVP, Duncan has been at the top of his game in this postseason, averaging 23.2 points and 11.4 rebounds while shooting 53.9 percent from the field and playing excellent defense. The Cavaliers' best hope here might be that reserve Anderson Varejao can frustrate Duncan, but rarely does Duncan seem bothered by anything. Edge: Spurs.

SMALL FORWARD: Bruce Bowen vs. LeBron James. Bowen is one of the NBA's top perimeter defenders and has agitated a number of offensive stars with his tactics, including Steve Nash during the second round. But he struggled when matched against Deron Williams in the conference finals and now gets an even tougher test. When James aggressively attacks the basket, nobody in the NBA can stop him, and if the Spurs force him to give up the ball, he'll usually get it to teammates in the right spot. Edge: Cavaliers.

SHOOTING GUARD: Michael Finley vs. Sasha Pavlovic. Finally getting his shot at a ring, Finley is still a dangerous outside shooter who fits in perfectly with the veteran Spurs. Pavlovic averaged 16 points in the first two games of the East semifinals, but his game has stalled since. He has scored in double figures only twice in the last 10 games, and shot just 6-for-24 in the last three. Edge: Spurs.

POINT GUARD: Tony Parker vs. Larry Hughes. The Spurs are no longer solely a halfcourt team, thanks to the continue improvement of the speedy Parker. His ability to break down defenses and set up San Antonio's 3-point shooters opens things up for Duncan, and his own jumper has become more reliable. Hughes will try to contain him on a sore foot and hope to provide some offense at the same time, but his shot has been shaky in the postseason. Rookie Daniel Gibson, who scored a career-high 31 points in the conference finals clincher, has taken some of the pressure off with his strong play. Edge: Spurs.

RESERVES: Manu Ginobili, Robert Horry, Brent Barry, Jacque Vaughn and Francisco Elson vs. Varejao, Gibson, Donyell Marshall, Damon Jones and Eric Snow. The Cavs' best lineup might be when they have Varejao on the floor for energy and rebounding, along with Gibson and Marshall or Jones for perimeter shooting. Ginobili is one of the NBA's top sixth men, playing starter's minutes. Barry and Horry, a clutch postseason performer, must be watched around the 3-point line. Edge: Spurs.

COACHES: Gregg Popovich vs. Mike Brown. Brown spent three years as Popovich's assistant and has turned the Cavs into a team that is every bit as tough as the Spurs on the defensive end. The Cavs have won 50 games in each of his two seasons. But experience counts extra this time of year, and three victorious trips to the finals have given Popovich plenty of it. Edge: Spurs.

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Re: NBA Finals Preview - San Antonio vs. Cleveland

Capsule look at the NBA finals between San Antonio and Cleveland
June 3, 2007

A capsule look at the NBA finals between the San Antonio Spurs and Cleveland Cavaliers, which begins Thursday night:

SAN ANTONIO SPURS (58-24, 12-4) vs. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (50-32, 12-4)

Starters: Spurs - C Fabricio Oberto (5.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg), F Tim Duncan (23.2 ppg, 11.4 rpg), F Bruce Bowen (6.6 ppg, 3.7 rpg), G Michael Finley (13.1 ppg, 3.1 rpg), G Tony Parker (19.8 ppg, 6.4 apg). Cavaliers - C Zydrunas Ilgauskas (13.8 ppg, 9.5 rpg), F Drew Gooden (11.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg), F LeBron James (25.8 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 8.3 apg), G Sasha Pavlovic (9.0 ppg, 2.6 rpg), G Larry Hughes (12.6 ppg, 2.6 apg).

Key Reserves: Spurs - G Manu Ginobili (16.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg), F Robert Horry (4.6 ppg, 3.7 rpg), G Brent Barry (3.1 ppg), G Jacque Vaughn (2.2 ppg), C Francisco Elson (3.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg). Cavaliers - G Daniel Gibson (7.6 ppg, F Anderson Varejao (5.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg), F Donyell Marshall (3.5 ppg), G Eric Snow (1.8 ppg), G Damon Jones (1.1 ppg).

Season Series: Cavaliers, 2-0, limiting the Spurs to 79.5 points per game and giving them three straight wins in the series. James scored 35 points in the Cavs' 88-81 victory on Nov. 3, Cleveland's first win in San Antonio since 1988. Parker averaged 23.5 points on 56 percent shooting and Duncan added 21.5 points and 13.5 rebounds per game, but they got little help. Ginobili was only 1-of-8 from the floor in Cleveland's 82-78 victory on Jan. 2, and the Spurs shot only 40 percent in the two games. Hughes scored 18 points in each game.

Storyline: In his fourth season, James has the Cavaliers playing for their first title, and the first by any Cleveland pro sports franchise since 1964. But they have to go through perhaps one of the NBA's most respected franchises, as the Spurs are trying for their fourth ring since 1999.

Key matchup I: Bowen vs. James. Bowen is one of the NBA's top perimeter defensive players, and there's a lengthy list of offensive stars he has frustrated with his variety of tactics. But James is so strong that he should be able to handle whatever Bowen tries against him. And he is much more than a scorer, so even if Bowen takes that away, James can hurt the Spurs in other ways.

Key matchup II: Ginobili vs. Gibson. Gibson has quickly turned into one of Cleveland's most important offensive players, helping break open a few recent wins with his outside shooting. The rookie scored a career-high 31 points in the Cavs' Game 6 victory in the Eastern Conference finals. Ginobili has to do better than the 10 points per game and 32 percent shooting he managed against the Cavs this season.

X-factor: 3-point shooting off the bench. Both teams are among the NBA's best defensive clubs, and the best way to soften them up is by knocking down some perimeter shots. Barry and Horry, who has made a career out of doing that in the clutch, will be called upon for the Spurs. Cleveland has Gibson, Marshall and Jones for that role.

Prediction: Spurs in six.

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Spurs prep for LeBron, Cavs
June 3, 2007

SAN ANTONIO (AP) -LeBron James is now the San Antonio Spurs' problem.

The Cavaliers star, in just his fourth season, has led Cleveland to its first-ever NBA finals. With his performance in the Eastern Conference finals, James has lifted an entire city's hopes onto his shoulders.

And he's bringing that load with him to Texas for Game 1 on Thursday

``They're real excited about it. And you can tell in the way they're talking, the type of celebration they had last night,'' San Antonio's Tim Duncan said Sunday. ``They're super-excited and they're coming in here on a high. And we have to counter that, we can't play into that. Those guys are going to be as confident as anything and I think the confidence is what carries you.''

James' career playoff-high 48 points in the Game 5 double-overtime win against the Detroit Pistons were a turning point for Cleveland. The Cavs, led by James and rookie Daniel Gibson, followed that with another win Saturday night to eliminate the Pistons.

``Well he scored (48) the other night so he's a pretty good player,'' Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. ``Pick a problem, we have it, with LeBron. He's fantastic in every way so, pick any aspect of the game, he's a problem.''

Bruce Bowen, one of the league's best defenders, will likely guard James the bulk of the time. James has averaged nearly 26 points a game during the playoffs.

``We're going to count on Bruce to do a good job, try to contain him,'' Spurs guard Tony Parker said. ``He's playing very well right now, a lot of confidence. But I don't think we're going to double- or triple-team him. We're going to see how Bruce does and go from there.''

Asked if he'd like to get some time guarding James, Parker said: ``No, I'm OK.''

The Spurs' Michael Finley, who like James is making his first trip to the finals but is doing it at age 34 instead of 22, called James a ``powerful player ... he's a big man, a big kid, rather.''

``When he gets into a nice groove he can make it a long night for teams and for individuals,'' said Finley, a 12-year veteran. ``So we'll have our job cut out for us to slow him down a bit.''

Duncan said it's safe to say James may get more attention on the court, but that the Spurs won't make many changes to their defense.

``You have to respect someone like that and focus a little more of the attention toward him,'' Duncan said. ``But they're going to need a team to beat us, LeBron's not going to do it by himself.''

With the spotlight on James, the Spurs, going for their fourth championship in nine years after winning it all in 1999, 2003 and 2005, are relishing what they call their new ``bad boys'' role.

The Spurs are known as a quiet, reliable and efficient team without flash or pomp, but with plenty of wins. During this year's playoffs, beginning with their second-round series against the Phoenix Suns, the Spurs started drawing a lot more attention.

Their six games against Phoenix were testy, with lots of bumps and bruises and claims of dirty play and unfair suspensions that helped turned the series San Antonio's way.

``We're not vanilla anymore,'' Parker said. ``We're the bad boys, but it's fine. Everybody likes new stuff. So LeBron James, his first finals, so obviously a lot of people are going to root for him. And that's fine. They still have to try to beat us.''

Duncan even joked that the team is going to try to get a new nickname to fit its new persona.

``It's a different role for us,'' Duncan said. ``We're usually the underdogs, we're usually the ones that are kind of fighting out of a hole.''

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Favored Spurs won't underestimate Cavaliers
Mon, Jun 4, 2007
By Associated Press

SAN ANTONIO -- LeBron James may be the star of the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the San Antonio Spurs know better than to ignore the other four players on the court.

''They wouldn't be in the finals without LeBron, we wouldn't be in the finals without Tim Duncan,'' Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said Sunday. ''That goes without saying. But they still would not be in the finals, nor would we, if we didn't each have our supporting casts. Everybody else has to fit.''

San Antonio was 0-2 against Cleveland during the regular season. The Spurs lost their home opener to the Cavs, plus their January matchup in Cleveland, where the NBA finals will arrive for the first time later this month.

The Spurs held James to 19 points in the second meeting, but the Cavs put three other players in double figures in their 82-78 victory. Two other players scored eight points.

''We lost to them twice this season. They've been playing great,'' Duncan said. ''They're on a high right now, playing with a lot of confidence. And they're going to be a tough opponent. We're going to have to really come out and shake this rust off quick this first game and really try to jump on them.''

After beating the Utah Jazz in five games for the Western Conference championship, the Spurs will have had a full week off by Thursday's start to the NBA finals in San Antonio.

Cleveland wrapped up the Eastern Conference championship on Saturday in Game 6 against the Detroit Pistons. James scored 20 points in that game, but it was rookie Daniel Gibson's 31-point performance that stole the show.

''Teams get to finals and teams win championships, and their team fits,'' Popovich said.

So do the Spurs. Their top three scorers, Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, have been together for the Spurs' last two championship runs, in 2003 and 2005. Duncan is healthy and said he's playing better basketball this year than in the last three. And the team turned midseason struggles around to take off on a 13-game winning streak and compile a 23-6 record after the All-Star break.

Still, the turnaround James has led in Cleveland over his four seasons there is what's grabbed the attention.

''I'm just hoping every once in a while they throw the Spurs in there, in between LeBron highlights, that'd be nice,'' Duncan said Sunday.

The experienced Spurs are going for their fourth championship in nine seasons. Duncan has been around for all three.

''I'm not sure how rare they think it is since they've been there quite often considering their young ages and time in the league,'' Popovich said. ''But they know it's the finals and that would take care of any possible complacency I would think.''

San Antonio held opponents to just over 90 points a game during the regular season, leading the league. Cleveland was fifth, holding opponents to about 93 points.

''Cleveland's an excellent defensive team, they kind of snuck up on everybody. When you talk about defense people mention the Pistons and the Bulls this year, and Houston and San Antonio and that kind of thing. Dallas became a good defensive team under Avery (Johnson),'' Popovich said. ''But Cleveland is right in that category with everybody else, it just hasn't been noticed yet.''

Popovich has reason to compliment the Cavs' defense. It's largely the same as San Antonio's.

Brown is one of several members of the Cavaliers organization, including general manager Danny Ferry and assistant coach Hank Egan, who used to be with the Spurs. Brown worked under Popovich as an assistant for three years earlier this decade.

''This is going to pretty much a situation where everybody knows what everybody's going to do,'' Popovich said. ''There aren't going to be any secrets here, that's for sure.''

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Cavs primed for shot at Spurs
June 4, 2007

CLEVELAND (AP) -Above the Cavaliers' training room door on the wall adjacent to LeBron James' locker hangs a photograph of one of his signature dunks - one of his nastiest, wake-up-the-kids slams.

The one over Tim Duncan.

Someone placed it there a few days after Cleveland's 88-81 win in San Antonio on Nov. 3, the Cavaliers' first victory in the Alamo City since 1988 and one that set the tone for a special season.

So far, the most special.

Seven months after James posterized Duncan, the Cavaliers were at home Monday getting ready to go to an unfamiliar place: the NBA finals.

The finals can be a scary place for first-timers who might be intimidated by the global spotlight. Not James. Although he's a finals rookie, the 22-year-old star isn't nervous about taking his show onto the grandest stage yet.

``I'm very excited to be a part of it,'' said James, wearing a New York Yankees cap and ``King of Akron'' T-shirt. ``As far as me being in awe, I don't know. I'm not that type of guy.

``There's not too many things that awe me.''

James and the newly crowned Eastern Conference champions began preparing for Thursday's series opener against the Spurs with a workout at Quicken Loans Arena. It was quiet in the building, a stark contrast from 48 hours earlier, when the one of the biggest parties in Cleveland history cranked into the wee hours of Sunday following the Cavs' Game 6 over Detroit in the conference semis.

Other than a massive media presence and having to get their pictures taken in warmups now bearing the official finals patch for TV, there were no other signs around the Q to indicate the finals had arrived.

The first two games are in San Antonio. T, and the Cavaliers, who aren't being given much of a shot to win the series by oddsmakers, won't get their first true taste of the finals' carnival-like atmosphere until they get to Texas, where everything is bigger anyway.

Cavs guard Eric Snow remembers being overwhelmed by his first trip to the finals as a Seattle rookie in 1996.

``I was in awe. I didn't know what to expect,'' said Snow.

He was devoured by all of it. The international media. The ticket requests. The family issues. What was supposed to be fun became a distraction, and Snow expects some of his teammates to be stunned by their first exposure to the extraordinary setting.

``They all will (be awed) because they haven't experienced it,'' he said. ``The best teacher in this league is experience. The only way you're going to understand it is to go through it. I've tried to instill in them that we still have to realize why we're there.''

On his second trip to the finals, with Philadelphia in 2001, Snow was better prepared to handle the off-court matters.

``The second time I kind of knew the magnitude,'' he said. ``There's a lot of different things and they're good things. People are excited for you, but at the same time you still have to play the game so you still have to find a way to focus, stay in tune to the game plan.''

For Cavaliers coach Mike Brown, this trip to San Antonio is about more than business. It's a return to his favorite coaching stop, a city where he still keeps a home and where he won an NBA title as an assistant on Gregg Popovich's staff in 2003.

``I've had a lot of great memories with him,'' said Brown, who speaks regularly to one of his mentors on the phone. ``There are a lot of things that I've learned from him that really make this a special time for me. I've looked up to him as a coach, and as a man.''

Now in his second season with Cleveland, the 37-year-old Brown, along with general manager Danny Ferry (San Antonio's former director of basketball operations), have changed the culture of the Cavaliers, using the Spurs' model to do it.

Their mission since Day 1 has been to bring a championship to Cleveland, and that goal is four wins from reality. And although the Cavaliers are neophytes in the finals, Brown isn't worried about them either being scared or satisfied with just making them.

``This team has been focused the entire year and they've really taken to heart the one-day-one-game-at-a-time theory,'' he said. ``And I believe if they understand that each game is its own separate entity, it doesn't matter what people are saying or doing, we've got a chance to win.

``We're in it to win a championship, and everybody understands that.''

James took some lumps early in the Detroit series, and then delivered late. He scored 48 points in Game 5 and finished the six-game series averaging 25.7 points, 9.2 rebounds and 8.5 assists - numbers only matched in a conference finals by Oscar Robertson (1963), John Havlicek (1968) and Larry Bird (1986).

Beating Detroit was monumental. Beating San Antonio would surpass it.

``That's a very great team, they're very experienced, they've been to the finals before and they know how to handle adversity,'' James said. ``We have to just attack, attack, attack. That has to be our mind-set and we give ourselves a chance to win.''

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Re: NBA Finals Preview - San Antonio vs. Cleveland

WHAT THE SHARPS ARE THINKING ABOUT THE NBA CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES
DIRECT FROM VEGAS
WITH NICK BOGDANOVICH

We've had fun this year looking at how the "sharps" in Las Vegas (professional sports wagerers) approach big events. We took the NFL week by week through the season, then applied the same approach to the bowl, the NFL playoffs, and March Madness.

Here in the NBA championships, it's fairly cut and dried.

* Everybody thinks the Spurs are going to win...

* Everybody thinks the Spurs are overpriced...

* Everybody's trying to set up a "scalp" play of some sort that shows them with little risk and a potential profit.

I can tell you that nobody is really taking a stand on the series. No respected player is shouting at the top of his lungs (or betting huge amounts) on the Spurs thinking that this is a lock for the favorites. But, everybody respects the role that playoff experience plays at this level. They all recognize that San Antonio should be the favorite. There just isn't any value to exploit given where the numbers have been.

A brief history of the numbers...

* There were outlaw numbers that had San Antonio in the low -400 range. That's a very high price already, but some early investors thought the line would go up higher. They're assessment was that Cleveland would be seen as completely outmatched by the Spurs in terms of championship potential...and they bet San Antonio early hoping to buy back some of that at higher prices.

* The "official" opening numbers were around -500. So, that assessment was right. Early indicators suggested -400 was too low, and that the public would expect a higher number.

* Action has come in on Cleveland at that very high price, bringing the line down to the -460 area as we go to press. I don't expect it to move too dramatically unless there's a big injury in practice before the first game starts.

The "positioning" from big players looks something like this:

* Those who got down on San Antonio at the low outlaw numbers bought back some of Cleveland at the high opening price. They've now got a small low-risk or no-risk play on Cleveland. If the Spurs win the series, it's a wash. If Cleveland wins, guaranteed profit. You've really got to be a master of money moves to take advantage of prices this high. The sharps ARE masters. In fact, the key to being a sharp these days is a lot more about money matters than it is about handicapping matters.

* Those who didn't act early, but took a flyer on Cleveland hoping that the Cavs might steal one of the first two games in San Antonio. Should that happen, the price on San Antonio will come way down...and a great scalp or hedge can be put in place. I know some guys who try to do this in any series they think will be competitive. At lower prices, they'll end up having BOTH teams at underdog prices! Whoever wins, they make money. Before a series starts, they take the series dog at something like +160. If that dog wins one of the first two games, the other team is now the underdog in the series, and the player can get a good price on them too. It's harder to do at these very high moneylines. If San Antonio drops one of the first two games, they'll still be a favorite in the series.

I've talked to a lot of guys about this series. Whether it's oddsmakers, sharps, or even most squares, everyone's seeing things the same way:

SAN ANTONIO'S CLEAR EDGES:

* Playoff experience
* A great defense that can find a way to deal with LeBron James
* An offense that spreads everyone out to create openings
* Great rebounding...with both defense and rebounding strengths counteracting the edges that Cleveland has over most opponents.
* Multiple scoring threats. People still see Cleveland as a "one-man team," while the Spurs can get meaningful production from Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker...and clutch baskets off the bench from a variety of guys.
* Head coaching. Though the Cleveland coach earned respect last series, he's still seen as a novice compared to Coach Pop of San Antonio.
* Home court advantage
* No injuries

What else is there? San Antonio obviously has the look of a champion, while Cleveland obviously has the look of a team that's climbing the ladder, but isn't quite ready to win yet.

CLEVELAND'S BEST HOPES

* An injury to a key Spurs player.
* Complacency from San Antonio
* LeBron continues to be Superman, while Gibson plays EVERY game like he did in Games Four and Six in the last series.
* The league fixes the series to go at least six games, and the Cavs get lucky late.

Hey, guys in Vegas can create all sorts of scenarios when it comes to making a bet! You know, none of the four things listed under the Cavs is all that outrageous. Injuries happen all the time in the playoffs. San Antonio is known for getting complacent. You saw that in Game Three of the Utah series, and several times during the Duncan era. They typically bounce back from bad games well. But, if Cleveland really has taken a giant step forward of late, they won't lay down when the Spurs breathe fire again. Can LeBron continue to be Superman? Why not? He's more physical than the Spurs defenders are used to seeing from a big scorer. Gibson's a bit of a wildcard. He did play college ball at Texas though, so he'll love to play for the crowd.

Personally, I think Cleveland's got a chance to make things very interesting. You know I have a lot of respect for the elements of "power basketball" that we've discussed on these pages many times. Both of these teams are great at the stuff that wins playoff games. Cleveland's always been better than the public thinks at the stuff that matters. Too many people see the poor team shooting and think it's a bad team. Cleveland is a defense and rebounding team that tries to score enough to win. Winning ugly is always underrated by the public.

That being said, San Antonio is still the obvious favorite. It brings up one of those funny situations that sharps often find themselves in.

"Team A is obviously the much better side, I'd make them a -300 favorite."

"What? Team A is a -500 favorite at the sportsbook, give me the dog!"

You can go from thinking you're going to love a favorite, to loving a dog just based on whatever price goes up on the board. That's what handicapping is all about!

mvbski
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