SAN ANTONIO — One of the most anticipated debuts in NBA finals history was way, way off the mark.
A LeBrick, if you will.
LeBron James couldn’t solve San Antonio’s stifling defense and the pick-and-rolling Spurs, as fundamental and selfless as ever, outclassed Cleveland in an 85-76 win over the Cavaliers in Game 1 on Thursday night.
Tim Duncan had 24 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks, and Tony Parker added 27 points for the Spurs, who began their quest for a fourth championship since 1999 by putting on a basketball clinic for the Cavs, finals rookies, who have a ton of work to do if they have any intention of making this a competitive series.
With the eyes of Texas, a curious hoops nation and the world upon him, the 22-year-old James, who has rarely failed to rise to any occasion, flopped like never before on the game’s grandest stage.
James shot just 4-of-16 from the field and finished with 14 points against the Spurs led by Bruce Bowen, San Antonio’s secretary of defense, who got plenty of help from his teammates in grounding Cleveland’s soaring superstar.
“It is going to be an incredible effort the entire series,” Duncan said of keeping James in check. “I know he will come out stronger in the next game.”
This was not the series opener James — or the NBA — had hoped for. His first foray into the finals was hyped in the days leading up to the game as many wondered if he could deliver the way Michael Jordan once did.
But James came nowhere nearing matching Jordan’s first game in the finals when he scorched the Los Angeles Lakers for 36 points on June 2, 1991.
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, who lost twice to the Cavaliers during the regular season, seemed to be one step ahead of James all night. When he cut left, they cut him off. When he tried going right, they were right there. By the time James made his first outside jumper _ a 3-pointer with 6:54 left _ the Spurs had built a 74-59 lead.
The 31-year-old Duncan, labeled boring because of his lack of flash, did what he always does: dominate.
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.”
“It felt like we played a month ago,” Duncan said. “It was just good to get out there and get some of that rust off, kind of get back in the flow of things. Our shooters didn’t shoot great, you could see that, but we played well all around the defensive end and we got it done.”
James, who began 0-for-8 from the field, finally got his first basket with 7:15 left in the third quarter, blasting down the lane through a pack of Spurs to hit a scoop shot that brought 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 ball sitting on the rim for several seconds before finally falling.
The Spurs eventually pushed their lead to 64-49 after three, and then opened the final period with 3-pointers by Robert 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 Cleveland shot under 40 percent until a late barrage.
“They started to do a good job towards the end of the game,” Duncan said. “They got a couple of layups and a couple of easy shots. We’ll have to clean that up a little bit.”
James left with 45 seconds to go, dejectedly slumping into his seat after a night he’d probably like to forget.
Before taking the floor for their first finals game in Cleveland’s 37-year history, the Cavaliers huddled near the tunnel for a prayer. Then, James and his teammates repeated something they’ve done since the first day of training camp.
“One, two, three, championship,” they shouted in unison.
But it became clear very early on that any climb to a title would be steep.
The Spurs, who hadn’t played in a week since beating Utah in the Western Conference finals, showed no early rust.
They started 7-of-9 from the field as Parker and Duncan combined for 14 of San Antonio’s first 16 points as San Antonio opened a 20-15 lead after one.
Every time James took off for the basket, a Spurs defender — or two or three — was waiting for him. On one drive, he had his headband yanked off by Duncan, who got posterized on a dunk by James in the first meeting between the teams in November.
Seven months later, Duncan got even.
On the occasion of his fourth finals, the three-time finals MVP, arrived at the arena with a freshly shaved head _ typically a sign that he’s ready to step up his game. He has been reluctant to talk about his place in history or the Spurs’ ascension to a dynasty level.
But if this game was any indication, San Antonio may soon have to be recognized as one of the league’s great powers.
James, who first graced Sports Illustrated’s cover when he was 17, entered the finals perhaps needing an NBA title to validate his greatness. There have been other elite players _ Charles Barkley, John Stockton and George Gervin top the list _ who never got a championship ring.
Does he feel he must win to be immortalized?
“That’s not my room to say,” James said. “When you look at guys who become greats, it’s because of their athletic ability and their ability to do the things that they did as an individual. I don’t get involved in individual things.”
On Thursday, the Spurs didn’t let him get involved at all.