The San Antonio Spurs, playing their best defense when it matters most, moved to the brink of a fourth NBA title in nine years on Tuesday by edging Cleveland 75-72.
Sparked by reserves on a night when stars struggled, the Spurs seized a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven NBA Finals and can complete a sweep by winning game four in Cleveland today. No team in NBA history has won a series after trailing 3-0.
San Antonio's Tony Parker scored 17 points while Tim Duncan added 14 points and nine rebounds. Manu Ginobili, 0-for-7 from the field, hit his only points on three free throws in the last 10.4 seconds to create the final margin.
"I'd think Tony, Manu and Timmy would have to be great to win these games but that's not going to happen all the time," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "We ended up being the fortunate team at the end. We hung in there. We won."
LeBron James scored 12 of his 25 points in the final quarter but it was not enough to rescue the Cavaliers, who had 12 points and 18 rebounds from center Zydrunas Ilgauskas but hit only 29-of-79 shots from the field.
"These three games, it's the best defense we've played all season. It's the best defense we've had in the playoffs and it has been back-to-back-to-back," Popovich said.
The Spurs made 10-of-19 3-point shots while Cleveland was only 3-of-19 from beyond the arc, the last miss by James on the final play.
"It went in and came out," James said. "I had a good look at it and I missed."
The teams matched the second-fewest combined points in any NBA Finals game, barely beating the record low of 145 from Syracuse and Fort Wayne in 1955.
"We set the western world of offensive basketball back 10 years," Popovich said.
They also combined to equal the lowest-scoring quarter in NBA Finals history by producing only 27 points in the third period, the Spurs outscoring the Cavaliers 15-12 to stretch their lead to 55-50 entering the final period.
James refused to surrender but it would take one of the greatest comebacks in US sports history to secure Cleveland's first title in any sport since 1964.
"Everybody has to still believe," James said. "We dug ourselves a big hole. We have to come out aggressive and continue to play hard. We gave ourselves a chance to win. That's all we can ask for. We have to try to win four straight."
The Cavaliers fell to 7-2 at home in the playoffs while the Spurs rose to 6-2 on the road in the playoffs.
"Our guys fought. They gave effort. But they did not make enough plays down the stretch to win the game," Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said.
Bruce Bowen contributed 13 points and nine rebounds for the Spurs in addition to tight defense guarding James.
"Bruce definitely kept them in the game hitting big threes," James said. "It was definitely good for them because Manu struggled, Tony struggled mightily and Tim Duncan didn't shoot the ball well."
In a pivotal stretch over the last 2:16 of the third quarter and the first 2:30 of the fourth, the Spurs went on a 12-2 run ignited by two Brent Barry 3-pointers and Bowen's fourth 3-pointer of the game to take a 60-50 lead.
The Cavaliers never drew level again, both clubs going scoreless for 3:33 late in the fourth quarter as time after time they traded turnovers or missed shots, James missing three chances to halve a four-point deficit.
"We're just playing great defense," Parker said. "We just try to contain [James], stay in front of him and not give him anything easy and at the same time cover the other guys."
Cleveland made only 6-of-22 shots in the third quarter while the Spurs made just 5-of-15 from the field to break the old low total for any NBA Finals third period, 31 by Chicago and Portland in 1992 and Chicago and Utah in 1997.
The Cavaliers de-activated Larry Hughes, who is struggling with a heel injury, and started rookie guard Daniel Gibson, who had averaged 15.5 points a game off the bench in the first two games but had only two in Game Three.
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