Cleveland comes within one of elimination



By Tom Withers

CLEVELAND – Rude and ruthless, the San Antonio Spurs ruined Cleveland’s 37-year wait to host the NBA finals.

Unwelcome guests, they defied the young King and may soon take home another crown of their own.

Bruce Bowen, the defensive stopper, emerged as an unlikely offensive star as the Spurs moved within one win of their fourth championship in nine years with a 75-72 win over the Cavaliers on Tuesday night to take a commanding 3-0 lead in the series.

And they did it with only two-thirds of their Big 3 doing what they usually do in one of the lowest-scoring games in finals history.

Tony Parker scored 17 points and Tim Duncan had 14, but Manu Ginobili, who scored 25 in Game 2, had just three – all free throws in the final 10.4 seconds – to hold off the Cavaliers and crush the hopes of their towel-waving crowd, who had never before seen their team play a finals game in person.

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    Cleveland’s chances, and maybe their last hopes of extending the season, ended when LeBron James, who led the Cavaliers with 25 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, was short with a 3-pointer in the final seconds.

    Bowen, who had just nine points in the first two games, scored 13 and Brent Barry made three 3-pointers for the Spurs, who can all but plan their victory parade as no team has ever overcome an 0-3 deficit.

    “It doesn’t change at all,” Duncan said of the Spurs’ attitude. “We need to get one more, and that’s it, however it comes. We know they’re going to come out this next game, they don’t want to get swept.”

    The Spurs can wrap up their third title in five years with a win in Game 4 on Thursday night. If they do complete the eighth sweep in finals history, they’ll join the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls as the only franchises to win four or more titles.

    The grind-it-out game tied for the second fewest points in NBA finals history, matching San Antonio’s 80-67 win over the New York Knicks in 1999.

    James, the 22-year-old who saved Cleveland’s franchise, couldn’t rescue this series.

    He scored 12 points in the fourth quarter, threatening to take over as he did in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against Detroit, with drives through the teeth of San Antonio’s smothering defense.

    But James had several layups dance off the rim, and he got little help from his teammates as the Cavs went just 3-of-19 on 3-pointers and failed to take advantage on a night when the Spurs were not themselves.

    All James can do now is try to prevent a sweep by the Spurs, who are 48 minutes from adding a 2007 title to the ones they captured in 1999, 2003 and 2005. Every other year, it seems to be San Antonio’s turn, and this one is no different.

    James scored seven straight points as the Cavs cut a 10-point lead to 69-67 with 1:22 remaining on another layup by Cleveland’s star. But Parker countered with a 3-pointer before Sasha Pavlovic hit a deep one for the Cavs to make it 72-70 with 48.1 seconds remaining.

    Parker, so dominant in Games 1 and 2, made a turnover but the Cavs failed to capitalize. James, criticized early in the playoffs for being too unselfish, passed to Anderson Varejao and the mop-topped Brazilian, nicknamed “Wild Thing,” flung up a wild shot that wasn’t close.

    Ginobili was fouled, missed his first throw but finally got something to fall through the net to give the Spurs a three-point lead. James again got to the rim for a basket before Ginobili’s two free throws gave San Antonio its final margin.

    The Cavaliers changed their starting lineup as rookie Daniel Gibson replaced Larry Hughes at point guard. Hughes was bothered by a sore left foot, but Gibson, who has emerged as a star in these playoffs, didn’t help much.

    He went just 1-for-10 from the field and missed all five 3-pointers, unable to duplicate his 5-for-5 performance when Cleveland captured the Eastern Conference title in Game 6 against Detroit.

    Zydrunas Ilgauskas added 12 points and 18 rebounds – 10 offensive – for the Cavaliers, who were hoping three straight games in their own building could help them get back into the best-of-seven series.

    Instead, the Spurs have nearly wrapped it up.

    The teams played an ugly first half _ with Duncan and James watching a good chunk of it from the bench.

    James picked up his third foul on a questionable push off near the basket, and moments later, Duncan was whistled for his third when he apparently brushed Ilgauskas’ arm – TV replays showed he fanned – as the Cavs’ big man dropped a shot in the lane.

    Duncan’s eyes bulged and he stared in disbelief before heading to the sideline – James was already sitting and snapping on his warmup – with 5:24 left in the second quarter.

    The Cavs eventually built an eight-point lead without their superstar, but the Duncan-less Spurs got 3-pointers from Barry and Robert Horry, and Parker hit one of his teardrop floaters to put San Antonio ahead 40-38 at halftime.

    Hughes was ineffective in Texas as Parker blew past him, spinning like a dust devil all over the AT&T Center’s floor. But Gibson was able to stay in front of the Spurs point guard, who went scoreless until midway through the second quarter.

    As he did when the Cavaliers returned from Detroit down 0-2 in the Eastern Conference finals, James arrived at the arena more than three hours before the opening tip to get in some extra shooting.

    Wearing one of his popular sleeveless, black “Witness” T-shirts and silver sweat pants – ironically, Spurs colors – James worked up a healthy sweat while practicing 3-pointers, mid-range jumpers and free throws for 30 minutes.

    “It’s definitely a big game for us,” James said in front of his locker. “It’s either about changing the series around or doing the impossible.”

    And that’s just what the Cavs are faced with.