SAN ANTONIO (AP) - LeBron James is now the San Antonio Spurs’ problem.
The Cavaliers star, in just his fourth season, has led Cleveland to its first-ever NBA finals. With his performance in the Eastern Conference finals, James has lifted an entire city’s hopes onto his shoulders.
And he’s bringing that load with him to Texas for Game 1 on Thursday
“They're real excited about it. And you can tell in the way they're talking, the type of celebration they had last night,” San Antonio’s Tim Duncan said Sunday. “They’re super-excited and they’re coming in here on a high. And we have to counter that, we can’t play into that. Those guys are going to be as confident as anything and I think the confidence is what carries you.”
James’ career playoff-high 48 points in the Game 5 double-overtime win against the Detroit Pistons were a turning point for Cleveland. The Cavs, led by James and rookie Daniel Gibson, followed that with another win Saturday night to eliminate the Pistons.
“Well he scored (48) the other night so he’s a pretty good player,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “Pick a problem, we have it, with LeBron. He’s fantastic in every way so, pick any aspect of the game, he’s a problem.”
Bruce Bowen, one of the league’s best defenders, will likely guard James the bulk of the time. James has averaged nearly 26 points a game during the playoffs.
“We’re going to count on Bruce to do a good job, try to contain him,” Spurs guard Tony Parker said. “He’s playing very well right now, a lot of confidence. But I don't think we're going to double- or triple-team him. We’re going to see how Bruce does and go from there.”
Asked if he’d like to get some time guarding James, Parker said: “No, I’m OK.”
The Spurs’ Michael Finley, who like James is making his first trip to the finals but is doing it at age 34 instead of 22, called James a “powerful player … he’s a big man, a big kid, rather.”
“When he gets into a nice groove he can make it a long night for teams and for individuals,” said Finley, a 12-year veteran. “So we’ll have our job cut out for us to slow him down a bit.”
Duncan said it’s safe to say James may get more attention on the court, but that the Spurs won’t make many changes to their defense.
“You have to respect someone like that and focus a little more of the attention toward him,” Duncan said. “But they’re going to need a team to beat us, LeBron’s not going to do it by himself.”
With the spotlight on James, the Spurs, going for their fourth championship in nine years after winning it all in 1999, 2003 and 2005, are relishing what they call their new “bad boys” role.
The Spurs are known as a quiet, reliable and efficient team without flash or pomp, but with plenty of wins. During this year’s playoffs, beginning with their second-round series against the Phoenix Suns, the Spurs started drawing a lot more attention.
Their six games against Phoenix were testy, with lots of bumps and bruises and claims of dirty play and unfair suspensions that helped turned the series San Antonio's way.
“We’re not vanilla anymore,” Parker said. “We’re the bad boys, but it’s fine. Everybody likes new stuff. So LeBron James, his first finals, so obviously a lot of people are going to root for him. And that’s fine. They still have to try to beat us.”
Duncan even joked that the team is going to try to get a new nickname to fit its new persona.
“It’s a different role for us,” Duncan said. “We’re usually the underdogs, we’re usually the ones that are kind of fighting out of a hole.”