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A Picture-Perfect Game 1 Was Ruined in an Instant

For nearly the entirety of regulation, the first round of Cavaliers-Warriors looked to be a classic. And then life happened. Where do we go from here?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It took the Cleveland Cavaliers a long time to open their locker room on Thursday night. For a while, I thought they were trying to tunnel out of Oracle Arena and make their escape, possibly to a non-extradition country. Given everything that happened, it was hard to blame them for not wanting to throw open the doors and have a good heart-to-heart with a horde of reporters.

Game 1 of the NBA Finals was a blast—right up until the Cavs blew it and everything went boom. For 47 minutes and 55.3 seconds, the Cavs delivered as good a performance as you can hope for against the best team in basketball and were close to stealing the first game of the series on the Warriors’ home floor. Or at least LeBron James delivered as good a performance as you can hope for through 47 minutes and 55.3 seconds of regulation. The problem was that last 4.7 seconds.

James had a playoff career-high 51 points, along with eight rebounds, eight assists, one block, and one steal. It was the 15th time he’s had 40-plus points and at least eight assists in a playoff game. For comparison, Michael Jordan, Steph Curry, Kobe Bryant, and James Harden have 15 such games combined. LeBron didn’t just give it his all, he gave it his eye. Didn’t matter. The Cavs lost the game in overtime, 124-114. When we think back about Game 1 years from now (or weeks from now), my guess is that we’ll remember that LeBron was really good and his teammates really weren’t. That’s been the story of the season, but for much of the year, we talked about it as an abstract concept and also in the context of LeBron’s greatness because he was always able to overcome his teammates and push forward. Not this time.

There are lots of things you should do when you grab a rebound late in the game with the score tied and a chance to win, but none of them are what J.R. Smith ultimately opted for. Who knows if Smith would have made a shot if he had taken one. But dribbling out almost the entire clock not only sent the Cavs to overtime, it sunk them.

On the video of the fateful moment when LeBron rightfully screams at Smith for making the worst possible decision at the worst possible time, it looks like Smith said he thought the Cavs were up at the time and not tied. After the game was over, Ty Lue said as much: “He thought it was over. … He thought we were up one.” Steve Kerr naturally wouldn’t know as much about Smith’s thought process there as Lue, but his takeaway from the moment was dead on: “We got lucky.”

The Warriors did. The Cavs did not. When the doors to the Cavs locker room finally opened, more reporters than I could count crammed inside the cramped space and surrounded Smith. But while Lue, Kerr, and everyone who watched the game believed that Smith thought the Cavs were ahead, J.R. said he knew the game was tied. He told us that he dribbled out because Kevin Durant was in his way and he wanted “to get space to bring it out and maybe get a shot off.” Then—and this was the truly ridiculous part on a night full of ridiculous moments—he kinda threw LeBron under the bus.

“I looked over at LeBron,” Smith said. “He looked like he was trying to call timeout so I just stopped. The game was over.”

LeBron really messed up by not taking that timeout is a pretty spicy take even for J.R. Smith. James had another monster night in a postseason full of them, the Cavs outrebounded the Warriors by 15 (including 19 offensive rebounds by Cleveland, which is incredible), Kevin Durant shot 8-for-22 from the floor (and made just one of his seven 3-point attempts), and the Cavs still lost. No wonder James was in no mood to explain what he thought was going through Smith’s mind as the fourth quarter ended.

It’s a good thing no one told LeBron that Smith said he was just waiting for James to call a timeout. LeBron might have spontaneously combusted at that point and splattered superstar bits all over the press room. Of course, James wasn’t the only person who was frustrated. Near the end of overtime, Tristan Thompson took umbrage with the Warriors still taking shots even though the game was clearly over. He responded by getting into it with, oh, everyone in Oakland before pushing the ball against Draymond Green’s face and getting ejected.

In the locker room afterward, Thompson said the Warriors violated the unspoken rules of basketball, which was why he reacted the way he did. The Cavs were also pretty mad that a charge call on Durant with 36.4 seconds left in regulation was overturned on replay and switched to a blocking foul against James.

“I mean, it’s bad,” Lue said. “It’s never been done before where you know he’s outside the restricted, and then you go there and overturn the call and say it’s a block. It’s never been done, ever, in the history of the game. And then tonight in the Finals on the biggest stage, when our team played well, played our [butt] off, man, it ain’t right. It ain’t right.”

He has a point. So did Thompson. But that doesn’t matter because hardly anyone will remember that the Cavs got a raw deal or that the Warriors were mean to them and rubbed it in at the end of a game that, as Kerr pointed out, Golden State was lucky to win. What people will remember is the Smith play and how the Cavs wasted another all-time performance by one of the greatest players in history. Beyond that, the Cavs not named LeBron and Kevin Love—who had 21 point and 13 rebounds in his first outing after being cleared from concussion protocol—also wasted what was a really fun game for the rest of us.

The expectation was that this series would be pretty easy for the Warriors. They were installed as heavy favorites by various oddsmakers. (Bovada had them at -800 to win the series and 9-2 to sweep the proceedings.) Before Game 1, Kevin O’Connor and I stood courtside and, between the two of us, we figured the best the Cavs could do was maybe win a game against Golden State.

Instead, we were treated to an excellent, entertaining effort right away. There were 15 lead changes and 17 ties in Game 1. There were LeBron dunks and fantastic passes that led to easy backdoor opportunities. James and Steph traded baskets. James and Draymond traded acting lessons. And let’s not forget about Curry hitting a 3-ball right before the half then immediately turning and playing to the crowd.

The night was every bit as dramatic as we could have hoped—only to be undone by a comedy of errors and a slapstick ending that led to some good, easy jokes. But maybe we should have known something like this was coming. At media day on Wednesday, I talked to some of the players about how the Cavaliers supporting cast is perceived. The general perception of them all season long is that LeBron carried the team and the rest of them were super lucky to be in the finals. Jordan Clarkson. Larry Nance Jr. Jeff Green. Jose Calderon. They all said they were aware what people think about everyone not named LeBron. They knew people snickered—but it didn’t seem to bother them. After Game 1, maybe it finally should.