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Finally free from the clutches of San Antonio's stranglehold, LeBron James took a deep breath and found a positive on an otherwise dreary night.
His overhyped and disappointing debut was over, but he and the Cleveland Cavaliers were not finished.
"It's not like the NCAA tournament," he said, "where you have one game and you're out."
No, these are the finals.
Dealing with two and three Spurs almost everywhere he went, James was harassed and humbled in his first foray into the NBA finals on Thursday night as the Spurs swallowed him whole in an 85-76 win in Game — over the Cavaliers.
James scored 14 points on 4-of-16 shooting and made six turnovers as the Spurs applied the clamps to Cleveland's 22-year-old star, who looked his age for one of the first times in his career.
"It was definitely crowded," James said of his experience on the ATT Center's floor. "If I went by one guy, another guy stepped up. It's definitely something I'm going to have to make an adjustment for in Game 2."
Tim Duncan had 24 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks, and Tony Parker added 27 points and seven assists for the Spurs, who began their quest for a fourth championship since 1999 with a defensive clinic on James.
With the eyes of Texas, a curious hoops nation and the world upon him, James, who has rarely failed to rise to any occasion, flopped like never before. With Bruce Bowen chasing him to every corner, James couldn't unleash his multifaceted game on the Spurs.
"He struggled mightily," Caves coach Mike Brown said of his franchise player. "They closed down the paint, and we tried to pick-and-roll with him. When he did get in the paint, he wasn't able to finish."
This was hardly the series opener James, the NBA or ABC-TV executives, had hoped for. His arrival at the finals had been trumpeted as the next coming of Michael Jordan, the player to whom James is often compared.
But James wasn't Jordanesque. Not even close.
He had one of the worst games of his brief postseason career and came nowhere near matching His Airness' first game in the finals when he scorched the Los Angeles Lakers for 36 points on June 2, 1991.
Jordan owned June, making the season's climactic month his personal playground. Right now, James can only dream of such success.
Game 2 of the best-of-seven series is Sunday night in San Antonio. Games 3, 4 and 5 (if necessary) will be in Cleveland.
The Spurs' game plan was to make it tough for James to score. They made it nearly impossible as Bowen forced him toward the sideline and away from the foul lane &
his personal runway to dunks.
"We did a very good job on LeBron, not giving him the passing lanes that he's used to," Duncan said. "It takes five guys understanding what we're doing, understanding a game plan and sticking with it."
The Spurs, who lost twice to the Cavaliers during the regular season, seemed to be one step ahead of James. When he cut left, they cut him off. When he tried going right, they were right there. the time James made his first outside jumper &
a 3-pointer with 6:54 left &
the Spurs had built a 74-59 lead.
then, the Spurs had squeezed the life out of Cleveland and its young star.
"LeBron is the head of the snake," Spurs forward Robert Horry said, "and we need to cut that head off."
The 31-year-old Duncan, labeled boring because of his lack of flash, dominated.
The Big Fundamental knocked down open jumpers, freed up teammates with crunching picks and generally had his way against Cleveland's frontline for San Antonio, which was lifted by its crowd's incessant chants of "Go, Spurs, Go."
Parker, too, was on top of his game. The speedy point guard slashed and sliced past Larry Hughes, playing with an injured foot, and James for easy layups.
"We have to make the game harder for him," Hughes said.
After missing his first eight shots, James finally got his first field goal with 7:15 left in the third quarter, blasting down the lane through a pack of Spurs for a layup to bring the Cavs within 46-41.
But Bowen responded with a 3-pointer, Manu Ginobili hit another from long range and Duncan dished to Parker for a layup to make it 56-47. On the Spurs' next trip, Parker weaved his way inside and dropped in a layup.
The Spurs eventually pushed their lead to 64-49 after three, and then opened the final period with 3-pointers by Horry and Ginobili to open their biggest lead, 70-52, with 8:50 left.
Two 3-pointers by James and a few jumpers by rookie Daniel Gibson, who led the Cavaliers with 16 points, cleaned up the score but it wasn't nearly that close as the Spurs had unquestioned control.
San Antonio hadn't played in eight days since beating Utah in the Western Conference finals. But despite the layoff, the Spurs tore through the Cavaliers like a Texas tornado and looked ready to make this a short series.
Unless, of course, James figures out a way to get to the basket or get his jumper to fall.
"A lot of shots I took, I usually make," he said. "Things like that happen. We've got to regroup."
Notes: More than 18,000 fans watched the game at Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena and hundreds more were turned away. ... Game — winners have gone on to win the series 17 of 23 times since 1984. ... The finals always bring out celebrities of all shapes and sizes as well as great former players including Julius Erving, Patrick Ewing, Clyde Drexler, Bob Lanier, David Robinson and Grant Hill. Erving spent time before the game chatting with actress Eva Longoria, Parker's fiancee. Later, when Erving was introduced to the crowd, Ewing bowed several times to salute "Dr. J." ... Horry is trying to win his seventh NBA title. "Big Shot Rob" won two with Houston (1994, 1995), three with the Los Angeles Lakers (2000-02) and one with San Antonio (2005).
Spurs bowl over James, Cavs in Game 1
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