“I thought we were ahead,” J.R. Smith’s lips appeared to utter. If it wasn’t Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the moment would have been almost comical. With 4.5 seconds left in the fourth quarter, George Hill’s second free throw, which would have given the Cavaliers a one-point lead over the Warriors, rimmed out. But there was Smith, rising to corral the rebound—only to nonchalantly dribble it away from the basket instead of toward it. He kept dribbling, even as a wide-open and screaming LeBron James stood next to him. In the moment, it seemed as though Smith thought the Cavs had the lead; the game was, evident to everyone in the world but him, still tied. By the time Smith realized his mistake, the buzzer had sounded. That was the beginning of the end of Cleveland’s shot at stealing Game 1 on the road, and it started with peak J.R. Smith, in all his mercurial glory, making a winning play and following it up with a boneheaded mistake.
“He thought it was over,” Ty Lue said postgame. “He thought we were up one. … Who knows if J.R. would have made the layup anyway.” With Lue’s frustration noticeable, the miscommunication continued after the final buzzer sounded. Smith gave a different account of the events to reporters: “I was trying to get enough to bring it out to get a shot off,” Smith said. “I knew we were tied; I thought we were going to call timeout. If I thought we were ahead, I’d have held onto the ball and let them foul me.”
Smith’s late-game gaffe wasn’t the only reason the Cavs lost 124-114, but in some ways it was cruel symmetry.
Smith also had a quizzical mistake to end the first half, going for a steal on a pass to Steph Curry that he couldn’t get. Curry took a calm step and drained the 38-foot 3 at the buzzer to tie the game. He turned to the crowd and signaled with his fingers, “1, 2, 3.” I don’t believe in momentum, but I do believe in the scoreboard. Had Smith not allowed that easy 3, it’s easy to imagine those three points spared saving the Cavs from even finding themselves in overtime. The J.R. roller-coaster experience finished the first half on a down note; it ended regulation on an even lower one that will leave a legacy, one that goes beyond the newly minted meme of LeBron clamoring for some sense in the middle of the madness.
The picture says it all. This will be remembered as the J.R. Smith Game for all the wrong reasons. LeBron did everything he could Thursday night. His one flaw was that he couldn’t get J.R. to be not J.R. for one possession. In a way that was extremely crushing, it was also emblematic of what kind of mountain LeBron has to climb over this time around. It will be one of the most memorable what ifs in recent NBA history if the Warriors win the next three, or (and maybe especially) if the Cavs somehow push this to six or seven games. The Warriors outscored the Cavs 17-7 in overtime, taking a mundane performance from their stars and falling into a victory. Cleveland wasted not only a LeBron performance for the ages—a playoff career-high 51 points on 32 shots, eight rebounds, and eight assists—but also a double-double from Kevin Love and a rare 23 points from its bench. The Cavs gifted it away with a plethora of mistakes and mental lapses that all could have been absolved if Hill had made the second free throw, and if Smith had done anything other than what he did.