For all the talk that Cavaliers-Warriors IV was bad for the NBA, all fans, diehard or casual, who tuned in Thursday would take six more games just like it.
That might be wishful thinking after everything that happened in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
Many predicted a short series, but although the Cavaliers gave the Warriors everything they could handle in Game 1, Golden State’s 124-114 overtime victory was such an emotionally crushing loss for the Cavs that they might not be able to come back from it.
This was their game to win, a golden opportunity to steal one on Golden State’s home court, to add to LeBron James’ lore and legacy of lifting his team and teammates.
James finished with 51 points, but it was wasted after a bizarre ending to regulation in an exciting and dramatic game that had a little of everything, including J.R. Smith not thinking about shooting for perhaps the first time in his career.
The former Knick lost track of the score. He disputed that, but no one is buying it, not even his coach.
Smith said he knew the score was tied, but he sure didn’t act like it. His coach, Ty Lue, said Smith thought the Cavaliers “were up one.” He certainly acted that way.
The score was tied when Smith retrieved an offensive rebound of George Hill’s missed free throw in the waning seconds of regulation. Instead of going right back up with it, Smith dribbled out to midcourt and was planning to run out the clock, thinking the Cavaliers were ahead.
James did everything he could to re-direct Smith. He called for the ball, then urged Smith to throw it to the corner and finally motioned for a timeout. What a mess. What a huge, costly mistake that could have decided the series.
“We got lucky,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.
Yes, Hill missed a key free throw after his first one with 4.7 seconds remaining tied it at 107. But Smith has to know the score and situation there. He has to know those things.
“You got to know the score,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said. “That’s just basketball. You got to know if you’re winning or losing or tied. We’ll take it. Sometimes it’s good to be a little lucky.”
The Cavaliers looked shell-shocked after that. The Warriors faced no resistance in overtime, scoring 17 points in five minutes — only six fewer than they did in the entire fourth quarter.
How do the Cavaliers come back from this?
They already were facing long odds against the more talented Warriors, who are trying to win their third championship in four years. Cleveland outplayed Golden State, and the only thing the Cavaliers got out of it was complete disappointment.
“We got to move on,” a frustrated James said. “You wake up tomorrow with a fresh mind and you move forward.”
There is a possibility that the Cavaliers will be shorthanded for Game 2 Sunday after a scuffle in the closing seconds of overtime. Tristan Thompson shoved the ball in Green’s face, and the NBA will decide whether a suspension is warranted. Kevin Love briefly left the bench area but reportedly will not be suspended because it was determined that he went on the court to protest the flagrant foul call, not to participate in the altercation.
James did everything he could to lead his team to victory and had to settle for being the first player in Finals history to lose a game after scoring at least 50 points.
You never want to count out James, because his brilliance knows no limits. But it had to be as deflating a loss as he has endured in his career. How much more of a load can he carry?
There were times in the third quarter when James got too shot-happy. He took too many three-pointers and didn’t attack the basket as much. It looked as if he adopted some of the Houston Rockets’ principles. A couple of his three-pointers were heat checks.
James is at his best when he’s going to the rim and setting up his teammates, and that’s what he went back to doing in the fourth quarter. That’s what got the Cavaliers a 104-102 lead with 50.8 seconds left and a 106-104 edge 18.7 seconds later.
In between those two baskets, there was another unexpected turn of events that had a huge impact on the game, and perhaps the series.
James drew what appeared to be a charge on Kevin Durant with 36.4 seconds left, and it would have given the Cavaliers the ball, up two. The officials reviewed it to see if James was in the restricted area, and when they saw he wasn’t, they reversed the call after replays showed James wasn’t set when Durant ran into him. Durant made both free throws to tie the score.
Naturally, the Cavaliers made that controversial decision the main talking point, rather than Hill’s missed free throw and Smith’s mental meltdown.
“[James] did enough to carry this team to a victory,” Lue said. “To do what he did and come out robbed, it’s just not right.”
James said, “There were just some plays that were kind of taken away from us. Simple as that.”
It was a tough call at a critical time. But there was time left, and the Cavaliers had the ball with a chance to win. Smith has never met a shot he didn’t like, but he didn’t think of taking it Thursday night.
That might be the most bizarre thing about a game that ultimately may have cost the Cavaliers any chance they had to win this series.