OAKLAND, Calif. -- An extended opening game of the NBA Finals showed the enormity of what LeBron James is up against and must overcome: the defending champion Warriors and his own teammates.
Oh, and toss in a critical referee flip-flop that also worked against him, and you can understand how LeBron can deliver an epic performance, even for him, and still walk away empty.
Years from now, history will stammer to explain how the final crazed seconds of regulation in Game 1 robbed a man who literally had blood in his eye, scored 51 points, disrupted all of those projections of doom for the heavily-underdog Cavaliers and shook everyone at Oracle Arena.
“We got lucky,” admitted Warriors coach Steve Kerr.
An offensive foul drawn by LeBron with 36 seconds left and Cleveland up two being overturned after video review and resulting in two Warriors free throws? Yep.
A missed second free throw attempt by George Hill, in his first Finals appearance, that would’ve put the Cavs up a point with 4.7 seconds left in regulation? Uh-huh.
An offensive rebound of that miss by JR Smith, who then suffered a brain cramp and dribbled out the clock for some still-unexplained reason? Um, the game was tied. Whoops.
So of course, after being bailed out, the staggered Warriors recovered and reverted back to form, seized control of the overtime period and escaped with a 124-114 win. Nobody from nearby Alcatraz ever swam to safety like the Warriors did Thursday.
“There was just some plays that were taken away from us,” LeBron said. “Simple as that.”
Here’s the good news for LeBron: It took some funky stuff to deny him, and none of it is liable to happen again in this series. Of course, there’s the flip side as well: Did the Cavs blew one of the few chances they’ll get? And does he need to score fiddy every game to give himself and Cleveland a chance. Is that even possible, with all due respect to his greatness?
LeBron was angry, annoyed, stunned and confused, an emotional gumbo that plainly showed on his face and in his voice post-game.
“We had opportunities,” he said through gritted teeth.
All night, LeBron blew through the Warriors no matter whom they threw his way and jumped them from the start. The Warriors needed a 40-foot heave from Curry at the buzzer just to keep from trailing at halftime. The anticipated Golden State response and big lead never materialized -- even in the third quarter which has been their playoff wakeup call -- because LeBron refused to let an opportunity slip away.
Nothing bothered him, not even a first-half fist to the face (courtesy of Draymond Green) which sent LeBron to the floor and damaged his left eye, which remained visibly red the rest of the night. Imagine: LeBron missed only two shots in that half, and finished 19 of 32, while staring through a fog.
“It’s pretty much blurry and it got worse as the game went on,” he said.
Still, the buckets kept coming… a pair of sprint-to-the-rim dunks… a pull-up three-pointer from 35 feet… assorted post-ups and then, with 50 seconds left, a blast by Steph Curry on an isolation play that resulted in a three-point play after getting hacked at the rim by Kevon Looney. Cavs up two.
Then, insanity happened.
Kevin Durant wasn’t sharp from the outside all game; he eventually missed seven of his eight three-pointers and seemed rattled, as he has through a portion of these playoffs. Plus, the 2017 Finals MVP was clearly being outplayed by LeBron. So Durant, closely checked by Jeff Green, tried to attack the rim.
LeBron gave help and slid into the lane, just outside the restricted circle. He stuck out his left hip and it struck Durant, causing both to fall. Lead official Ken Mauer blew his whistle and then paused briefly while striking a charging pose, as if he wasn’t sure. The three referees consulted the video and determined that while LeBron was beyond the restricted area, he wasn’t in legal guarding position. A charge became a blocking foul and went from Cavs’ ball to a pair of game-tying free throws by Durant.
Lebron: “I thought I read that play as well as I’ve read any play in my career. It’s a huge play. A huge play.”
Durant: “I knew I had my man beat and he came over late. So when they called the charge, I was surprised. But I’m glad they reviewed it.”
A LeBron layup and Curry three-point play later, the Warriors were up a point and Hill was at the line. A make, a miss and a JR rebound and fateful dribble-out.
LeBron frantically pointed to the basket and tried to get Smith to reverse field and shoot, then after the buzzer was clearly mystified and demanded to know: what the heck were you thinking?
Perhaps the best explanation is this was JR being JR. His career is peppered with head-scratching moments and events and behavior patterns that can only be described as… loopy. The Warriors laughed at JR’s expense, after the fact of course. Green in particular took delight in Smith’s pain.
“That’s part of the game, being locked in," the Warriors forward said. "I mean, you got to know the score. That’s just basketball. You’ve got to know if you’re winning or losing or tied.”
Smith only added to the confusion by saying afterward, “I tried to bring it out and get enough space to get a shot off. I looked at LeBron and he looked like he was trying to get a timeout. So I stopped, and the game was over… I knew it was tied. If I thought we were ahead I would’ve just held onto the ball and let them foul me.”
Smith claimed he was spooked by Durant standing in the lane, and yes, there was no guarantee Smith would’ve made a basket even if he immediately shot or found Lebron, who was 25 feet from the basket, in time for a 3-pointer.
Durant: “If he had tried a layup, I was right there. I had a good chance to contest it.”
But why would Smith dribble out knowing time would expire quickly? Either he forgot the score, or he forgot the time remaining, or he poorly misjudged the time.
“He thought the game was over," Cavs coach Ty Lue said. "He thought we were were up one.”
OK, then. JR mystery solved. Or maybe not.
Anyway… The reversed call and missed free throw weren’t as dramatic as Smith’s memory lapse, which will be the water-cooler talk today and live forever on video. But the first two were costlier because Smith didn’t have a clean look once he grabbed the rebound, and a miss was possible. If the call remained a charge or Hill made the free throw, the Cavs likely win the game.
The Warriors had their moments. They missed only one shot in OT and locked up the Cavs. Curry scored 29. Klay Thompson had a scary first-quarter collision with Smith, who slipped under him, causing Thompson’s leg to buckle, but Thompson returned and finished with 24 points.
Oh, and there was a JaVale McGee sighting. He scored a pair of quick baskets and triggered a third-quarter run before missing an uncontested dunk. Which means, McGee can do certain feats that make you go, wow! And then he can do others that make you go … wow.
Who knew that McGee’s missed dunked would ultimately be one-upped by a bigger and crazier play by Smith and a missed free throw by Hill and a reversed call? In the end, although they owned the score, the Warriors know the deal.
“Sometimes you need a little luck," Green said. "It’s good to be lucky sometimes. We’ll take it."
Curry: “It was a crazy game. The Finals, man, anything is liable to happen. All that matters is you win the game and turn the page to Game 2.”
That’ll be harder for LeBron to do. His masterpiece had mustard squirted on it. A brilliant display of basketball and a near-single-handed takedown of the defending champs and their four All-Stars was in the process of being completed. Then, ruined.
LeBron was in a forgiving mood regarding his teammates.
“I don’t give up on any of my players,” LeBron said. “I would never give up on JR. That’s not my MO. We’ve got to move on.”
The game’s most dominant player served notice in Game 1 with a career high for the Finals and fifth-highest scoring game ever in the championship series. He just put the Warriors on alert. After watching his sprint through the Eastern Conference playoffs from afar, they know whom they’re dealing with, and it is real.
“We held back a lot of strategy tonight,” joked Kerr. “We’ve got so many things up our sleeves. We’re going to shut (him) down next game.”
Well, for a series that began so unconventionally and took a wickedly wacky turn, there’s one thing that should remain constant, and that’s LeBron James. Especially on two days' rest before Game 2 on Sunday.
“I always live in the present,” LeBron said. “I mean, we take this one. We know how difficult and challenging this task is … you wake up tomorrow with a fresh mind.”
Fresh mind, perhaps … but wounded soul, for sure.
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