We had the first in a string of games coming up between the NBA’s powerhouses — Cleveland at San Antonio. But if your significant other forced you to watch American Idol, I feel for you. We can help. Here is what you need to know from a Thursday night around the Association.
1) Cavaliers get off to fast start, but relentless San Antonio wears down Cleveland to get win, remain perfect at home. It’s hard not to try to draw conclusions from this game about what would happen if this were the NBA Finals matchup (a real possibility), even though six months from now these both will be different teams. This was more of a benchmark for where they are now — and at the start Cleveland looked great. Their combination of athleticism and free-flowing offense had them race out to a 12-2 lead to start the game. Seconds into the second quarter the Cavaliers led 35-20 after an Iman Shumpert jumper. That was as good as it got for them, the Spurs walked the Cavaliers down, passed them in the fourth and got the win. Here are the three things I would take away from this game and keep in mind for future meetings.
• The Cavaliers got away from the ball movement they had in the first quarter (an improved Spurs’ defense had something to do with that). Cleveland had six assists on 13 baskets in the first quarter, and then nine assists on the 25 buckets they had the rest of the game. Combine the lack of ball movement with solid Spurs positioning on defense (and a guy like Kawhi Leonard, who can make LeBron James work for his 22 points), and you got a Cavaliers team that settled for jumpers rather than attack the rim (and draw fouls or get easier shots).
• Tony Parker outdueled Kyrie Irving. I’m not sure if that’s sustainable — Irving is getting better each game still in his return from knee surgery — but if Parker can keep things close that’s good news for the Spurs. Remember that the Cavs were the last team to beat the Spurs in San Antonio and Irving went off for 57 in that game — he can swing these games by himself. Thursday night Parker played good defense on him (Irving had 16 points on 17 shots) plus had a team-high 24 points himself. This season San Antonio is asking Parker to do less than he did in the motion offense championship days just a couple of seasons back, and he is responding by looking less tired and coming through with big games when they need him.
• David West sparked a Spurs bench that won the game. This is what you hope for from veterans such as West — the Spurs needed a spark off the bench and West had 13 points in 18 minutes. West hit some key fourth quarter buckets, and he led a bench that got the Spurs back in the game and helped them take the lead in the fourth. This is the one takeaway that might worry the Cavaliers looking ahead to a series — the Spurs have had arguably the best bench in the NBA this season and the Cavaliers will have to keep that gap close to win four of seven games. Cleveland couldn’t do that Thursday night.
2) Jimmy Butler drops career-high 53 to lead the Bulls past the Sixers in overtime. If you want to be negative — as some Bulls fans are prone to be — and say it’s concerning that Chicago needed an epic performance and OT to beat the lowly Sixers, go ahead. I would counter with two things. First, it’s a long season, the Sixers have played better of late, teams have flat nights, and you take the wins where you can get them. Second, just enjoy what Jimmy Butler did — the man was incredible. He played the game’s final 37 minutes straight because Fred Hoiberg couldn’t afford to take him out.
3) Mario Chalmers hit a ridiculous game winner to lift Memphis over Detroit. This end of game sequence may not be the most aesthetically beautiful thing you will ever see, but Mario Chalmers has never feared the moment (going back to Kansas), and he drained another big shot in a career full of them.
4) Stephen Curry threw down just his second dunk of the season. This, and a fond farewell to Kobe Bryant from the Oracle Arena crowd, were the only two things worth noting from the Warriors win over the Lakers Thursday night.
5) Rudy Gay game winner lifts Kings past Jazz. They have playoff dreams in Sacramento this season, but if the Kings are going to make the dance for the first time in nine years they need to beat the team they are trying to catch — like eight seed Utah. Gay made that happen with a good-look elbow jumper for the game winner. (The Kings are now just one game back of the Jazz for the final playoff slot in the West.)