OAKLAND, Calif. — The odds makers and television analyst Jeff Van Gundy called the fourth straight edition of Warriors-Cavaliers one of the biggest mismatches in NBA Finals history, and that narrative took root because of the perception that LeBron James doesn’t have enough support to challenge the Warriors’ all-star cast.
But the Cavaliers were in position to win Game 1 before a controversial replay reversal went against them and J.R. Smith blew a chance at the final shot in regulation, and a game in which James scored 51 points brought the rivalry to another level as the Warriors prevailed in overtime after a heated finish. Suddenly, Game 2 on Sunday night at Oracle Arena looks like a cauldron of emotion coming to a full boil.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr admitted his team was lucky to escape with Thursday night’s victory but laughed off the notion that the opener might have served as a wake-up call for the heavy favorites.
“We came into this series knowing what we were up against,” Kerr said Friday in a media conference call. “Everybody else was saying it’s going to be easy. We weren’t the ones. So I hope the media got a wake-up call.”
The Cavaliers were devastated over the way Game 1 ended. With the Cavs ahead by two, the officials reversed a charging call against Kevin Durant and made it a blocking foul on James, and Durant hit two free throws to tie it at 104 with 36.4 seconds left. Then, after the Cavaliers’ George Hill hit a free throw to tie it at 107 with 4.7 seconds left, Smith rebounded Hill’s missed second shot but dribbled out the clock instead of attempting a putback layup.
Smith insisted he knew the score was tied, but Cavs coach Tyron Lue said Smith lost track of the score. Lue later talked it over with Smith, who will be back in the starting lineup for Game 2.
“I haven’t lost confidence,” Lue said. “J.R. can shake off anything, and when everybody tends to count J.R. out, that’s when he comes through. So he’s definitely going to start again. He’s a big part of what we do. That last play is over, and now we’ve got to move on.”
Hill described it as the worst loss of his career and admitted he was up most of Thursday night replaying his missed foul shot. He said the Cavs might have been “discombobulated” by the replay review, but they know they must recover emotionally.
If a Game 2 can be viewed as pivotal, this one is. “I don’t think any of us are demoralized,” Hill said. “We’re going to bottle up all that frustration from Game 1 and carry it to Game 2.”
That frustration erupted with 2.6 seconds left in OT when, with the Warriors up by eight, the Cavs’ Tristan Thompson took offense that Shaun Livingston attempted a shot rather than taking a shot-clock violation. Thompson was ejected for a flagrant foul and got into a shoving match in which he pushed the ball into the face of Draymond Green. On Friday, the NBA fined Thompson $25,000 for failing to leave the court in a timely fashion and for his interaction with Green but downgraded the foul to a flagrant 1.
Klay Thompson said of Tristan Thompson, “It was unnecessary when he shoved the ball in Draymond’s face. That was very uncalled for, especially if two guys are just talking.”
The Cavs’ Kevin Love left the bench to argue the flagrant call and was on the court when the altercation started, but the league determined he didn’t warrant a suspension because he returned to the bench immediately.
That heightened emotion is sure to carry over. “We’re the last two teams playing, and we’re going to fight it out,” Hill said. “It shouldn’t be a prom dance. It’s going to be a fight.”
The Warriors were just as emotional at the end of Game 1, with Stephen Curry chirping at James and Green yapping at Tristan Thompson after his ejection.
Asked if the Warriors might seize the emotional advantage if they take the early lead in Game 2, Klay Thompson said, “I don’t expect them to still be deflated by Sunday. I know their goal is to come to Oracle and just get one game. We want to protect our home court. If we don’t take care of business Sunday, we obviously lose that advantage. I expect them to play with great energy out of the gate on Sunday.”
It’s a real series now.