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The Cavaliers Wasted LeBron’s Finals Masterpiece

LeBron James delivered an all-time great performance in Game 1, dropping 51 points in a heroic effort. Somehow, it wasn’t enough.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In the moments after the Cavaliers beat the Celtics 87-79 on Sunday to advance to the NBA Finals, LeBron James was asked about leading this collection of teammates to basketball’s biggest stage. “I’m trying to squeeze this orange until there’s no more juice left,” James said. LeBron squeezed as hard as he possibly could in Game 1 of the Finals against the Warriors on Thursday night, dropping 51 points on a 69.2 true shooting percentage to go with eight assists and eight rebounds.

“They have a guy who is playing basketball at a level that I’m not sure anybody’s ever seen before,” said Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, who famously played alongside Michael Jordan. Game 1 was an all-timer for even the King, making his ninth trip to the Finals, as he blended the exquisite with pure valor while showing off every trick he’s ever downloaded into his basketball brain.

James would channel Magic Johnson one moment by dishing cross-court dimes; he’d steamroll his way to the rim like a perimeter version of Karl Malone; he’d effortlessly hit a fadeaway from midrange as if he were an oversized Kobe Bryant; and then he’d look like Steph Curry by draining a pull-up 3-pointer 35 feet from the basket. Only LeBron can play the greatest hits of other legendary players in NBA history. Thursday was the best individual performance I’ve ever witnessed in person, and it’ll go down as one of the greatest Finals showings of all time. But it’ll be remembered largely for the wrong reason: LeBron’s 51 points are the most a player has ever scored as part of his team’s Finals loss. The Cavaliers got everything they could’ve asked for and more out of James as they tried to steal one at Golden State, but some iffy officiating and a blunder for the ages flushed it away in a 124-114 overtime defeat.

“We played as well as we’ve played all postseason,” James said after the game. “We gave ourselves a chance possession after possession after possession. There were just some plays that were kind of taken away from us. Simple as that.”

Let’s start with the officiating. By plays being “taken away,” LeBron is referencing both missed calls—like when James cleanly stripped Kevin Durant but was whistled for a foul—and non-calls—like when LeBron got hacked on a drive midway through the fourth quarter but the action was allowed to continue. Most of all, he’s alluding to a call reversal: With 36.4 seconds remaining in regulation, LeBron appeared to take a charge on KD that would have given Cleveland possession with a 104-102 lead. The referees huddled for a replay review and changed the ruling to a block, putting Durant on the free throw line, where he sunk both of his attempts to even the score.

It was curious that the referees went to the monitor to review whether James’s foot was on the line of the restricted area when it clearly wasn’t close. Had I been the referee, I probably would’ve called a charge in real time, and I believe that the call on the floor should’ve stood. Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue had reason to say “it ain’t right” after the game; so, too, did Cleveland staffers have cause to be upset, and as ESPN’s Dave McMenamin reported, several mumbled F-bombs about referee crew chief Ken Mauer in the locker room.

Even after the controversial call change, however, LeBron’s heroics still should’ve been enough to secure Cleveland the victory. The game was tied at 107 when George Hill stepped to the line for his second free throw attempt with 4.7 seconds left on the clock. Hill’s shot clanked off the front rim and bounced directly into the hands of J.R. Smith, who … sprinted aimlessly beyond the 3-point line as regulation expired. It was a stunning and inexplicable mistake, taking all the air not only out of a transcendent LeBron effort, but also a Cleveland team that had to that point executed its game plan about as well as it ever could have hoped.

There’s a reason that the Cavs were in position to shock the world in Game 1, even though Golden State entered the series as one of the biggest favorites in NBA Finals history. Cleveland logged only 11 turnovers and slowed the pace of the game, two key ingredients to gaining an advantage as an underdog. The Warriors are now 3-3 in these playoffs when the pace dips below 96.4; two losses were to the Rockets and one was to the Spurs, and Golden State notched a win over both of those teams plus Cleveland.

Beyond encouraging his team to slow the game down, Lue also got creative on offense by putting Kevin Love through funky off-ball screens reminiscent of his Minnesota days.

This corner action gave the Warriors headaches during the first quarter. Love doesn’t log a point or an assist on the above play, but his involvement facilitating and scampering to the rim leads to Smith draining a 3. Later in the quarter, similar actions led to LeBron drawing two fouls. I like when the Cavs get fancy instead of being so stagnant. Their best chance is to keep playing this way moving forward.

Love was then the recipient of this pretty pass from LeBron.

James likely knew that Golden State would adjust to this movement—like it did above by overplaying the initial pass to Love to start the action. But the Cavs had their counter ready, and Love sprinted to the paint. Basketball is at its best when the game within a game operates like a chess match.

“We looked at a lot of film and saw where I could be effective and just let it fly,” Love said. “I had my legs underneath me, guys were looking for me.” For as much flak as Lue and his staff get from fans and the media, the coaches deserve credit for leaning into a wrinkle that gave the Warriors trouble, much like it did the Raptors in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Love logged 21 points, but shot only 1-for-8 from deep and missed countless open shots after LeBron had drawn attention from multiple Warriors and found him in space. Still, Love pitched in with 13 rebounds, including two offensive boards. It was key for the Cavs to win the possession battle. The Rockets exploited the Warriors in the Western Conference finals with P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela attacking the paint, and the Cavs stuck largely to that blueprint. They recorded 19 offensive rebounds—including four from LeBron—to generate 21 second-chance points.

“It’s just being able to know when to crash and when to get back because they’re so devastating in transition,” Love said. “You have to pick your poison, but we felt like we could take advantage of the offensive glass.”

The flip side of this, as Love mentions, is that when teams attack the boards against the Warriors, they’re often prone to getting shredded in transition. That’s especially likely when a team is as porous defensively as the Cavs, who allowed the sixth-highest frequency of transition buckets during the regular season. Golden State logged 28 fast-break points in Game 1—far exceeding its average of 16.6 fast-break points per game entering the Finals. That wasn’t all due to Cleveland’s emphasis on offensive rebounding, but it was a factor. The Cavaliers also lollygagged back on defense too often.

While Love and Larry Nance Jr. are both out of the picture, Jeff Green doesn’t stop the ball in the above clip, and LeBron is left as the last line of defense in a two-on-one. That’s emblematic of one way Golden State was able to keep the score close despite LeBron going off on the other end of the court. And when the Cavaliers weren’t getting beat up the floor in transition, they were getting roasted in the half court. Golden State scored 114.3 points per 100 possessions on half-court shots, outpacing even its league-high mark of 101.2, per Synergy. “I thought we were pretty good. I didn’t think we were great,” Kerr said. “I think we can play better.”

Kerr was right, despite what some offensive numbers may suggest. The Cavs accomplished a lot of what they wanted to do on defense; when James matched up against Draymond Green, for example, he’d often sag off and overplay passing lanes or help on others, thus clogging lanes for the Warriors. The Cavs were also selective in switching screens and forced Durant and Curry into some early-clock isos. Durant finished with 26 points on 8-for-22 shooting, and though Curry dropped 29, that total came on 23 shots. If you told me the stat line for LeBron, KD, and Steph heading into the game, I probably would’ve expected a Cavs win. But the Dubs screened with purpose on and off the ball, attacked closeouts, and found myriad ways to move against a Cleveland defense that was paper thin in some respects. This led to easy dump-off passes and alley-oops for their big men.

Take note of the shot clock in this clip. Draymond is posting up LeBron with 21 seconds remaining, giving the Warriors ample time to do what they want in their set. They move fast anyway, screening to put Kyle Korver into an impossible spot, which eventually leads to the Kevon Looney lob. This is a sheer talent advantage for Golden State; a bigger problem for Cleveland was the lack of consistent communication.

Here, Green runs toward Klay Thompson as if he’s going to set a down screen, but never makes contact. George Hill anticipates a switch while Smith does not, thereby leaving Green open, forcing Love to help, and prompting a JaVale McGee dunk. Golden State’s Big Four might not have scored at peak efficiency on Thursday, but their presence helped their teammates do so.

Simple breakdowns like the one above can’t happen against the Warriors. On this first-quarter possession, Jordan Bell could have sat in the paint, cut his fingernails, and still scored before anyone on Cleveland even came close to him. And yet, a deliberate approach and a LeBron masterpiece put the Cavs in position to win until the J.R. Smith debacle happened.

There was a lone Cavaliers fan sitting near me at Game 1, and amid all the jeering and laughing that resonated throughout Oracle Arena during Smith’s blunder, I could hear this guy yelling like a broken record: “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” It was as if this man was soundtracking the thoughts running through LeBron’s mind as he pointed toward the rim as Smith took off dribbling in the wrong direction.

Lue said after the game that Smith believed the Cavs were up one—and Smith could be seen on camera mouthing the words, “I thought we were ahead.” Smith, however, claimed he knew that the game was tied and was expecting a timeout to be called. Draymond Green had another theory: “I thought he was looking for LeBron. I would’ve looked for LeBron, too.”

LeBron, after all, was the only real option the Cavs had in that moment. The corner actions they ran for Love to great success in the first quarter had lost their power by this point in the game. Korver’s off-ball cuts and screens had been suffocated by Klay Thompson and other Warriors defenders. Jordan Clarkson went 2-for-9 shooting and finished with four points, and looked like he had no business even being in the rotation. So the Cavs began to run more stagnant isolations because they had nowhere else to turn, and it worked, because the Cavaliers have LeBron James.

But that strategy fizzled down the stretch and into overtime when the Warriors began relinquishing the Steph-on-LeBron mismatch that the Cavaliers desired. Over nine overtime possessions, LeBron was matched up against Curry five times, except Curry wasn’t left on an island as off-ball defenders like Durant, Green, and Shaun Livingston shaded toward the middle of the floor while keeping their arms aloft in the passing lanes. “There was a lot of resistance,” Green said after the game. “In that second half, we were much better against him defensively. He’s still gonna make some shots. That’s why he is who he is. But some of them, if you play great defense, you can live with.”

James was asked after the game which contributions from his teammates brought his game to the next level in Game 1. “I just try to do whatever it takes to help our team win and try to be a triple threat out on the floor offensively and being able to score, rebound, and get my guys involved,” James said. “I just tried to do that tonight.” That doesn’t really answer the question, but in a way it does. The Cavs, for the most part, executed their plan, and though many Cavaliers fans will blame the officials and J.R. Smith for the loss, James’s unreal night still should’ve been enough. It wasn’t. A historic night was wasted.

The Cavaliers locker room at Oracle Arena was silent after the loss. Few words were spoken even among the 75 to 100 media members who were crowded inside. Players went about their business. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert passed through the scene without uttering a word. As Smith faced the music from a scrum of reporters, LeBron sat at his locker in deep thought; he may have been wondering if the Cavaliers have any more juice left to squeeze.