SAN ANTONIO -- They were trying, America.
There was tangible evidence Thursday night, in spite of the final score, that the so-called Big Boring and his eternally droll San Antonio Spurs actually tried to do some entertaining in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
They looked as loose as they ever have on this stage. They had Tony Parker squeezing off 13 shots by halftime. They couldn't stop Manu Ginobili from winding the ball behind his back on the dribble at seemingly every opportunity ... except for the two times he bounced it between Daniel Gibson's legs, once successfully.
The Spurs also nearly uncorked what might have ranked as the most extravagant play in team history: Ginobili scooping up a loose ball spilled by LeBron James, weaving out of traffic with some of that Diego Maradona dribbling and shoveling it forward to Parker, whose ambitious lob to the aforementioned Big Boring proved just a fraction undunkable for Tim Duncan to corral on an alley-oop.
Inevitably, though, you had to know that San Antonio would gravitate back to its natural instincts, since there is a championship at stake here and given that there's only so much looseness coach Gregg Popovich will allow. No surprise, then, that defense was almost universally cited as the difference in the Spurs' 85-76 triumph, specifically how they snuffed out James in his NBA Finals debut.
"This is one of the few times this year," Spurs forward Robert Horry said, "that we really carried out a defensive scheme almost to a T."
If that were true -- if these guys didn't win so often with their suffocating D -- San Antonio probably wouldn't have many image problems. Truth be told? The three-time champs, even after a week of rust-inducing rest, did exactly what you'd expect to a young team that has only one reliable scorer and had never been here before.
They administered a Game 1 mashing to go with the Game 1 bashing James absorbed after passing to Donyell Marshall on the crunch possession of the Cavs' series-opening loss to the Detroit Pistons. With Bruce Bowen as the primary LeBron defender and its foremost perimeter pest backed up by the long limbs of Duncan or Francisco Elson jumping out at James whenever he turned a corner, San Antonio ushered this No. 23 to an 0-for-7 first half. When he did get inside, James found a packed paint waiting, which probably explains why he didn't drive much.
The Spurs, in essence, made sure that James didn't beat them, freely leaving his teammates open to make sure the visitors' lone star was constantly smothered. They also negated Cleveland's usual superiority on the boards with a lopsided rebounding edge of 43-32 and hiked the lead to a healthy 74-56 with 7:15 to go before cruising to the finish, largely because Parker -- unlike James -- couldn't have had it easier getting into the lane.
How easy? Parker racked up nine layups in scoring 27 points.
As for their LeBron coverage, Parker said: "We were just trying to contain him, make sure we don't give [James] any layups, any dunks."
Said Cavs forward Drew Gooden: "This is the best team we've faced. And we know that. I think from our roots, our coaching staff [coming] from San Antonio, trying to simulate the same things they're doing, we kind of use them as a measuring stick to see where we're at. ... Their experience, I think, kind of overcame us in this first game."
Finally getting past Detroit in the East finals, in Gooden's estimation, was "kind of like beating your karate master before you leave the dojo." Yet there was always a major flaw in the notion that LeBron leading these Cavs past Detroit's current cast is reminiscent of the path through Detroit's Bad Boys that Michael Jordan had to travel to finally reach the Finals for the first time in 1991.
Jordan's Bulls never had a Duncan or a defense like this waiting for them in the title round ... which helps explain why MJ went for a tidy 36 points, 12 assists, eight rebounds and three steals in the first Finals game he ever played.
"He's one of the best defensive players in the league, and the guys behind him help him a lot," James said of Bowen. "It gives him an opportunity to get up into me and force me into the bigs. He has a lot behind him. He doesn't have to do it by himself."
Bowen's response: "He didn't have a 48-point game, and I'm happy with that."
You believed Bowen, too, because the win is ultimately all these guys go for. They had as much fun for a while as their collective conscious will allow, which will almost certainly earn them a practice-floor roasting Friday from Popovich, who'll undoubtedly be fearing a big bounce-back game from James on Sunday night.
Then they happily shifted into the mode that bores many but wins plenty, with Duncan collecting five memorable blocks to go with his 24 points and 13 rebounds.
"I don't get into a woe-is-us kind of deal," former Spurs star David Robinson said before tip-off, in the midst of heaping a good 10 minutes' worth of praise on Duncan in his new role as Spurs Super Fan. "I think everyone in this organization is thrilled with the success we've had.
"Whether people recognize [it], who cares? To be honest with you, we're wearing three championship rings. In the long run, you're going to be remembered just for that fact alone, not for what people were saying about you at the time. So it doesn't bother me at all. Eventually it'll be recognized."
You'll notice that, after almost 20 years in this town and a decade of exposure to the Popovich Way, Robinson went for recognized as opposed to appreciated.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.