The right call at the end of Game 3 would have made a difference, all right.
Just enough to narrow the gap between the Spurs and Cavs without ever closing it. The way these teams are put together, they could be playing a best-of-70 instead of best-of-seven and San Antonio might still be on the verge of an NBA finals sweep.
The most bitter Cleveland fans will latch onto referee Bob Delaney's non-call in the closing seconds as LeBron James readied himself to launch a 3-point shot. James himself had a hard time letting Delaney head off the court and toward the locker room.
``He fouled me,'' James insisted, re-enacting the crime near midcourt. ``Right there.''
The tough part is that James and his fans are right: replays show Spurs defender Bruce Bowen clearly fouled James before he squeezes off the potential game-tying shot with 1.9 seconds left.
``He did make a stab at him,'' San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich acknowledged.
And because Cleveland sports fans have been raised on a diet of what-if - as in, what if ``The Drive'' or ``The Shot: or ``The Shot II,'' for that matter, never happened? - and because their team stormed back from a 2-0 deficit against Detroit in the Eastern Conference finals, those same fans will insist the Cavaliers could have turned this series around, too, if only Delaney hadn't swallowed his whistle at the most critical moment of the entire series.
But that ignores the evidence piled up from all those moments that preceded it.
NBA refs have been generous in deciding what constitutes ``continuation,'' but had Delaney made the right call, James would have been awarded two free throws instead of having the chance to tie the game with a three. So even if the King made both, the only change is that San Antonio's margin of victory would have been one instead of 75-72.
Keep in mind that while James has been solid from the line through the first three games of the series (18-of-23), closing games out from there has proven to be one of the more bedeviling lessons in an otherwise smooth ascendance to the head of the class. Had Delaney got it half-right, deciding that Bowen's foul occurred as James was rising up to shoot instead of before, the pressure to make all three free throws would have been staggering.
And judging by the holes the Spurs have already punched in James' cape, a crisis of confidence might be the last thing the youngster needs. But that didn't seem to be a problem by the time James reached the interview room.
``Incidental contact. It didn't affect my shot,'' James said. ``I had a good look at it and I missed.''
That left Cavs coach Mike Brown to explain how his team caught San Antonio on a night when the big three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili were barely adequate - a combined 34 points on 32 percent shooting - how Cleveland won the rebounding battle, made fewer turnovers, just as many steals and more blocks - and still lost. Surprisingly, that was the easy part.
``We shot a lot of 3s versus their hard closeouts,'' Brown said. ``Both teams shot 19, they made 10, we made three. Other than that, just about every other category, I thought statistically we played OK.''
The Cavs' 16-percent marksmanship from 3-point range was glaring for several reasons, beyond the comparison to San Antonio's glittering 53 percent in the same department.
James' 0-for-5 was baffling, especially since Bowen allowed him breathing room at the top of the arc and the King never quite figured out how best to exploit it. Worse, sidekick Daniel Gibson went 0-for-5 stepping in for injured starter Larry Hughes, and that was after nearly taking Hughes job earlier because Gibson was so deadly from distance earlier in the postseason.
Asked whether it was his defense or poor shooting by Cleveland that produced that differential, Popovich said, ``It's always both.''
Pressed about whether he was happy with his defense, the coach smiled, ``I'm happy with anything tonight. You could name anything and I'm happy.''
Not so the would-be King, who grudgingly admired a Spurs team that played worse than his in just about every category that could be measured, yet still found a way to win.
``I'm not surprised on how tough it is. I kind of envisioned it being tough. I think the Eastern Conference finals was tough, and I knew it was going to pick up another level. I think our team senses that, also,'' he said. ``You know, the experience factor, we don't like to make any excuse, but it definitely played a part.''
---
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org

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