June 1, 2018, 12:54 am
J.R. Smith had the chance of a lifetime. He squandered it with a gaffe that could haunt he and the Cleveland Cavaliers forever.
The Golden State Warriors beat the Cavaliers 124-114 in overtime on Thursday night, withstanding an all-time performance by LeBron James to take a 1-0 lead in the NBA Finals. It wasn’t easy for the defending champions in Game 1, though. They needed help to avoid losing home-court advantage, and got it at the perfect time, under circumstances that will live in basketball infamy for decades to come.
With just over four seconds left in the fourth quarter of a game Golden State led 107-106, James found George Hill cutting to the rim unencumbered with a one-handed bullet pass. Rather than cede an easy two, Klay Thompson grabbed Hill as the ball came his way, sending the Cavaliers point guard to the free throw line. After swishing the first of two freebies, knotting the score, Hill came up short on his second attempt. The ball caromed right over Kevin Durant and into the hands of Smith, who could have put it right back up from six feet, passed to an open James at the top of the key or called the Cavaliers’ last remaining timeout.
Instead, the notoriously eccentric veteran frantically dribbled toward halfcourt, content to hold the ball until James alerted him of reality. “I thought we were ahead,” cameras caught Smith telling his Hall-of-Fame teammate after the buzzer sounded, sending their underdog team to overtime against a juggernaut, on its home floor in the opener of the NBA Finals.
The play that decided Game 1. pic.twitter.com/e1UeOv57Rn
— ESPN (@espn) June 1, 2018
No one possession wins or loses a game. The Warriors deserve this victory every bit as much as the Cavaliers. Curry had 29 points, six rebounds and nine assists. He shot 5-of-11 from beyond the arc, including a 35-footer that tied the score as the second-quarter clock expired. Kevin Durant struggled to find hit jumper at times, but still finished with 26 points, nine rebounds, six assists and three blocks. Klay Thompson scored 24 points on 16 shots, and Draymond Green stuffed the stat sheet with 13 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists, five steals and two blocks. Golden State got several solid contributions from its role players, too, most notably Shaun Livingston and Kevon Looney, the former of whom was perfect from the field en route to 10 points off the bench.
Still, several game-changing trips down the court in crunch time make it hard to believe that Cleveland, if just one more play went its way, wouldn’t have left Oracle Arena with perhaps the most surprising victory of the 2017-18 season. Smith’s blunder will never be forgotten, but the Cavaliers might not have been in that situation altogether if the officials had given them a more favorable whistle.
While driving on Curry with 5:53 left in regulation, James was supposedly stripped clean by Looney; replays later showed contact on the arm as the Warriors big man swiped at the ball. Five minutes and 17 seconds later, James stepped in front of Durant at the rim after he blew by Kevin Love on the perimeter, yielding a 50-50 call initially whistled as a charge. Following a lengthy review, however, a blocking foul was assessed to James, and Durant tied the game at the line with 36.4 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Then, on the first possession of overtime, Durant was awarded two more free throws after a clean swipe down by George Hill, confirmed by television replay, was again ruled in favor of the reigning Finals MVP.
There were multiple times down the stretch when the Warriors could have been called for a foul on shot attempts by James, too. Not that anyone could fault them for playing him extra aggressively; Golden State had no other answer. James scored 51 points, the fifth-most in Finals history, dished eight assists and grabbed eight rebounds. He made 11 of his first 13 shots, initially pushing his team to an early lead and later stemming the tide of the Warriors’ seemingly inevitable third-quarter onslaught. After the Cavaliers fell behind by six entering the final stanza, James brought them all the way back to multiple leads in its final minutes with 13 points, three rebounds and three assists.
He was everything Cleveland needed him to be and more in Game 1. It’s not a stretch to say James was better than he’s ever been in the Finals, a ledger that now spans nine trips, 11 years, four head coaches and two teams. Still, it wasn’t enough to beat the Warriors.
— NBA (@NBA) June 1, 2018
Golden State will be better going forward, but optimists have ample reason to believe the Cavaliers will be, too. Kevin Love had 21 points and 13 rebounds in his first game back from a concussion, but missed several makable looks from the opening tip to overtime. Hill scored just seven points, four more than Kyle Korver. While Jordan Clarkson can’t be counted on, he can certainly shoot better than 2-for-9 – or perhaps not take that many shots at all.
And Smith, of course, could simply realize circumstances of time and score in the biggest game of the season. But he didn’t, and Cleveland falls behind 1-0 in the Finals as a result. Here’s hoping James and the Cavaliers play well enough to put themselves in a similar situation at some point over the next three games, replicating the drama of Thursday night – which was heightened by a flare-up between Tristan Thompson and Green in the latter stages of overtime.
Yet zooming out, it’s hard to believe Cleveland will get an opportunity again in this series like the one Smith so blatantly botched. Oracle Arena might be basketball’s biggest home-court advantage, and its occupants are heavy favorites for reasons too long to list. Even worse? The Cavaliers have to win in Oakland to beat the Warriors, and just lost a game in which James, a one-man band, put on a show for the ages.