OAKLAND, Calif. — He could have been a hero, but J.R. Smith was the goat in the Cavaliers’ 124-114 overtime loss to the Warriors in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night at Oracle Arena after committing one of the greatest blunders of all time at the end of regulation, dribbling out the clock in a tie game.
To be sure, it was George Hill who missed a potential go-ahead free throw after tying the score at 107 with his first foul shot with 4.7 seconds left in regulation. But it was Smith who came down with the rebound just behind Warriors forward Kevin Durant about four feet from the basket. Instead of going back up for a chip-shot layup, Smith dribbled out toward midcourt as if he thought the Cavs were ahead.
He denied not knowing the score.
“I knew it was tied,” Smith insisted afterward. “I thought we were going to take a timeout because I got the rebound. I’m pretty sure everybody didn’t think I was going to shoot it over K.D. right there . . . I saw K.D. standing right next to me. He already had [three] blocks, so I wasn’t trying to become the [fourth].”
When Smith was with the Knicks, he admitted to committing a similar gaffe in a 2014 game against the Rockets. In that case, he thought the Knicks were behind in a game that actually was tied when he took an ill-advised shot with 20 seconds to play. The Rockets rebounded and converted a pair of foul shots to win.
While Smith denied losing track of the score against the Warriors, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue wasn’t buying it. “He thought it was over,” Lue said. “He thought we were up one . . . Who knows if J.R. would have made the layup anyway? So it was tough.
“He could have had a little floor, somebody [Durant] was there. Then you think about calling timeout. LeBron was open for a second, and it just happened too fast. We had a chance to win. We had to regroup and try to win it, but they came out and played well in overtime.”
As Smith dribbled toward midcourt, he looked toward LeBron James, who finished with a playoff career-high 51 points. “I looked over at LeBron, and he looked like he was trying to get a timeout,” Smith said. “So I stopped and the game was over.”
Actually, Smith suddenly realized his error and threw the ball to Hill in the corner, but his shot came after the buzzer and missed anyway. Television cameras caught James screaming at Smith in obvious dismay.
When asked about that moment, James said, “This game is over and done with. We had opportunities. I would never give up on J.R.”
James said he didn’t seek an explanation from Smith after the game, but he made his feelings clear when pressed for his take on the situation. “We got the offensive rebound,” James said. “I thought we were all aware of what was going on. That’s my view. I don’t know what J.R. was thinking.”
The Warriors understood how lucky they were to escape. Durant faulted himself for failing to block out Smith. “I thought he was looking for LeBron because I was right there,” said Durant, who actually was under the basket in a flat-footed position, trying to recover. “If he had tried to put a layup up, I thought I had a good chance to contest it.
“I’m glad we got a ‘W.’ I don’t know what was going through J.R.’s head, but he made a great rebound and gave them an opportunity to win the basketball game.”
An opportunity wasted.