OAKLAND, Calif. — LeBron James did everything he could to disprove the notion that his Cavaliers were mismatched against the defending champion Warriors, scoring 51 points in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night at Oracle Arena. It was the eighth game of at least 40 points by James in this postseason, but his efforts were undone by a controversial replay reversal by the officials and a brain-freeze moment by J.R. Smith that wasted a chance to win in regulation.
After Smith rebounded a teammate’s missed free throw and dribbled out the final 4.7 seconds of regulation with the score tied, the Warriors scored the first nine points of overtime and limited James to two free throws in the extra period to pull away for a 124-114 victory.
The ending was marred by a flagrant foul by the Cavs’ Tristan Thompson, who was ejected, and a shoving incident between Thompson and Draymond Green.
Ultimately, the Warriors came away understanding they dodged a bullet, while the Cavs felt cheated by the refs.
James had seven points in a 10-2 run capped by his three-point play with 50.8 seconds left that gave the Cavs a 104-102 lead. On the next possession, James stepped up to take a charge from Kevin Durant, forcing an apparent turnover, but after a replay review, crew chief Ken Mauer overturned the call and awarded Durant two foul shots.
“It was determined [James] was out of the restricted area, but he was not in legal guarding possession prior to Durant’s separate shooting motion,” Mauer told a pool reporter. “So we had to change it to a blocking foul.”
James felt that call changed the course of the game. “I saw him drive, I was outside the charge line, I stepped into the contact,” he said. “It was a huge play, a huge play.
“I read that play just as well as I’ve read any play in my career, maybe in my life. I saw the play happen. I knew I was outside the charge line, and I knew I took the hit. I don’t know what else to say.”
The Warriors regained a 107-106 lead on a three-point play by Stephen Curry with 23.5 seconds left, but a foul by Klay Thompson sent the Cavs’ George Hill to the line with 4.7 seconds left in regulation. He made the first to tie at 107 but missed the second.
Smith rebounded for the Cavs but dribbled toward midcourt, apparently thinking the game was over but instead sending it to overtime, where they were outscored 17-7 by the Warriors.
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said, “He thought it was over. He thought we were up one.”
Smith denied that interpretation, insisting he knew the game was tied. “George shot the free throw, I got the rebound,” Smith said. “Tie ballgame, and we had a timeout. I was trying to get enough space because Kevin [Durant] was standing right there. I tried to get enough space to maybe get a shot off. I looked over at LeBron and he looked like he was trying to get a timeout, so I just stopped and the game was over.”
James said he didn’t talk to Smith afterward, adding, “I don’t know what J.R. was thinking.”
James made 19 of 32 shots, added eight rebounds and eight assists, and got a 21-point, 13-rebound boost from Kevin Love, who was cleared through concussion protocol to play.
Curry had 29 points and nine assists, Durant totaled 26 points, nine rebounds and six assists and Klay Thompson scored 24 points. Green added 13 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists, five steals and two blocks.
If the Warriors bought into the popular notion that this was going to be a cakewalk, they learned better. Coach Steve Kerr admitted they “got lucky” on Smith’s goof-up and “got a break” from the refs.
As for allowing James to go off for 51 points, Kerr said, “They have a guy who is playing basketball at a level I’m not sure anybody’s ever seen before. He’s got a really good group of teammates around him, and they put a lot of pressure on you. It’s going to be a tough series.”