Two things are obvious after last night's Game 3 of the NBA Finals: 1) the Spurs can plan their victory parade; 2) that was a foul.
OK, one more thing: 3) it was very magnanimous and classy of LeBron James to decline his constitutional right to rip the officiating on the Cavaliers' final possession.
Go figure: After some pretty lengthy contemplation, I can only think of one time, in all the playoff games I've watched, in which a clear-cut star player took a clear-cut foul and did not get the whistle. Last year, it was Game 4 of the first round between the Suns and Lakers, when at the end of regulation, Steve Nash, the reigning and soon-to-be-two-time MVP, crossed halfcourt and basically went into a tuck position, as a Laker defender (I'm thinking it was Smush Parker) slapped and raked him all over his upper body. Nash, having picked up his dribble, clung tight, expecting the whistle. It never came, and he got stripped, leading to a Kobe shot that sent it into overtime, setting up another Kobe shot to win it.
Last night, Bruce Bowen not only fouled LeBron, he fouled him intentionally, trying to send him to the line for two shots in a three-point game, and he fouled him with an official looking dead at the entire play. And you can make a reasonable assumption that LeBron would have been given the continuation -- a lot shakier continuations have been handed out in playoff games before (1999, East finals, Larry Johnson's four-point play that took place about four seconds and a couple of steps after he was fouled and before he actually shot). Yeah, laugh if you want about LeBron likely missing at least one of the three free throws he was entitled to. Doesn't matter. They blew the call. This wasn't even a case of a star's entitlement, getting calls just because of who they are (not that anyone ever has, not anyone with the initials M.J.). Bowen fouled LeBron behind the line while he was shooting, period.
Nevertheless, it's over, and so is this series. LeBron took the high road after the game and called it "incidental contact,'' making everybody who stayed up long enough to hear that stay up a couple of minutes more to make sure they hadn't been struck blind in the final seconds, or hadn't been hallucinating. In real time, my first reaction was, "That's a little fast and far-out for him to be shooting.'' The next thought: "He must have been pushed.''
Understand, of course, that the non-call didn't take that game away from the Cavs. Sideshow Bob's horrendous decision to drive on Tim Duncan and shoot on the possession before, that's what lost them the game. Again, LeBron made the right play; he spun into the lane, an extra defender came up, Sideshow Bob showed up to his left and LeBron gave it to him -- but LeBron immediately stepped back, held out his hands and asked for it back. But no. Sideshow decides he wants to be Magic or somebody, goes one-on-one against the best defensive player of this generation and, while actually making some room for himself in the lane, gets so out of control in the process that he can't get off a shot that has even a remote chance of going in. With the one and only teammate on the floor who had shown any semblance of an offensive game standing by himself at the top of the key, still waiting for that return pass.
Anyway ... horrible offensive game, or impressive defensive game? Well, the Cavs D'd up in a big way. The Spurs did what they usually do. The Cavs had the better defensive performance. They also had the far worse offensive performance. After last night, LeBron has my permission, and should have everyone else's, to shoot 40 times in Game 4, because, particularly in the second half, his teammates shriveled up.
And let's not hear another word about how increased playing time for Boobie Gibson (2 points, 1-for-10 shooting, 1 assist) was going to change everything; talk about one good game, against the Pistons in the clincher, being blown completely out of proportion. People were acting like he was the next Jerry West after that game. While we're at it, no more about how LeBron made the smart play back in Game 1 of the Detroit series by passing to Donyell Marshall, who, if I'm not mistaken, hasn't hit a shot since the East semifinals. In retrospect, Larry Hughes playing on one foot was a better option, after all.
There really is no reason to criticize LeBron for this series, even though it appears to be the fun thing for everybody to do, to remind everyone that he's not Michael after all. And by now, ripping Mike Brown's coaching is gratuitous; clearly, he's no Red Auerbach, but he made tons of adjustments last night, tried to win with defense and would have gotten away with it had anyone besides LeBron been able to hit a jumper. The Spurs won't play worse than they did last night. Manu Ginobili looked lost the whole night. Tony Parker suddenly couldn't get into the lane at will. Tim Duncan got into foul trouble and missed a surprising number of point-blank shots, and in another nice move by Brown, throughout the first half the Cavs went right at him. All for naught.
There's really no reason to think the Spurs can't close them out Thursday. The Bulls, with St. Michael at the controls, routinely toyed with teams on the brink of elimination and got burned a few times. We all forget that the dramatic steal and jumper in Utah at the end of Game 6 in '98 would never have happened if the Bulls had not taken Game 5 at home so lightly; they also made more work for themselves than they should have in '96 against Seattle after going up 3-0, and in '93 when they won the first two in Phoenix and then lost two of three in Chicago and had to get the John Paxson jumper in Game 6 in Phoenix to save them. The Shaq-Kobe Lakers also struggled to close teams out in the first title year of 2000, but not afterward.
The Spurs aren't the type of team to do that. If they could win last night when almost everything pointed to them letting the Cavs back in by letting them dictate the pace and flow of the game, they're certainly not going to let the Cavs sneak up on them and extend the series any further.
One more point. If I hear one more person whine about how lopsided the Finals are and demand that the playoffs be re-seeded, I'm going to pin him down and give him a Drew Gooden haircut. The Short Attention Span Theater is back to standing-room only. The same whining went on not only a mere decade ago when it was the East that was dominant and their conference finals were deemed superior to the league finals, it goes on every time one conference or league gets on a run in any sport. Remember when everyone wanted the AFC banned from the Super Bowl because the NFC was pounding them every year? The AFC eventually got better. The NBA West eventually got better. That's how it works. No cheap fixes, no short cuts, no rules-bending, no amnesty for teams with lousy front offices, no rigging the lottery or manipulating one-sided trades, no altering practices that have worked for 30 years. Don't bitch at David Stern for not "giving'' us the Mavericks and Suns in every playoff series from first round to the Finals. Go after the Celtics and Knicks for running those cornerstone franchises into the ground, go after the Magic for letting Shaq get away, go after the Pistons for replacing Larry Brown with Flip Saunders, go after the 76ers for wasting 10 years of Allen Iverson's career. Heck, go after the Wizards for having the rotten luck of getting Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler injured right before the playoffs. We might be seeing a completely different series right now if not for that. Same thing if Dwyane Wade doesn't get hurt and if Shaq didn't have 78-year-old knees.
From the moment the Mavs choked away their chances in the first round, the Spurs have been the better team, by a wide margin (even being smart enough not to let its first-team All-NBA players jump off the bench during an altercation), and they're the better team now. Making fun of the Cavs is pointless. They are what they are, a one-man team, and that one man can't beat eight or nine. Get them close, yes, but can't win. Give LeBron a Scottie and a Horace Grant and a Dennis Rodman and a John Paxson and a Steve Kerr, instead of Boobie and Donyell and Sideshow Bob and a guy with a soul patch on the back of his neck, and you might have a real contender. Then tell me if he's "Jordanesque.'' No one was elevating Michael to the heavens when he was playing with Ennis Whatley and Dave Corzine and getting whipped by the Celtics and Pistons every year.
This was the Spurs' year; it just took us until now to realize it.