2018 NBA Finals: Warriors vs. Cavaliers

Cleveland Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith's impact on Finals grows

Already in the headlines for his gaffe at the end of regulation in Game 1, Smith's loose-ball foul put Klay Thompson's availability for Game 2 in doubt

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

OAKLAND, Calif. – Maybe J.R. Smith won’t be such a goat for the Cleveland Cavaliers after all.

Smith, whose mental mistake late in regulation contributed to the Game 1 defeat Cleveland suffered in overtime Thursday, was responsible for a play earlier in the night that could benefit the Cavaliers in Game 2 of The Finals.

Golden State All-Star guard Klay Thompson limped and moved slowly before and after meeting with reporters Saturday, acknowledging that his left lateral leg contusion had gotten worse over the previous 24 hours. It’s possible Thompson won’t be able to play in Game 2 or might be limited in his effectiveness if he does.

And Smith is the man who inadvertently caused Thompson to get hurt in the first place.

Smith, 32, lunged for a loose ball midway through the first quarter of the series opener, but appeared to slip and slammed into Thompson’s legs. The angle and impact suggested a serious injury, possibly to one of Thompson’s knees, but the sharpshooting guard returned by the start of the second quarter and finished Game 1 with 24 points in 45 minutes.

But Thompson’s healing process, encouraging from Thursday to Friday, had reversed itself by Saturday.

“Just swelling, stiffness,” Thompson said. “I kind of expected it when the game ended because the adrenaline is not kicked in and you aren’t moving as much as you were. Because right when it happens, you can play. I’ve done it before. You can play on it; once you stop and go to bed that night, it kind of swells up.”

Thompson said he planned to do what he could in the hours leading up to Game 2 to stay loose and reduce swelling in what he’s calling a high ankle sprain. He admitted that, in watching replays of the mishap, he got angry.

“That’s a tough play on the ball, and then just to tumble into somebody’s legs like that,” he said. “You’ve got to move past it. It’s just life, and I’m going to be better from it. It’s just a minor setback. But I don’t think it was intentional.”

Reckless as Smith’s maneuver was, he did show concern for Thompson as the Warriors player writhed on the court.

“Yeah, he was remorseful, so I don’t think he meant to do it. It just sucks,” Thompson said. “It’s a part of the game. It just sucks for the timing, during The Finals. But no one is going to feel sorry for us or me. I’ve just got to do everything I possibly can these next 24 hours to be right for [Game 2].”

Said Smith: “I was just trying to go for the ball. It looked like an opportunity for me to get a steal. Unfortunately, I didn’t. I fouled him. They called the foul. I don’t know what more he was looking for.”

No one is going to laud Smith for hurting an opposing player. But the reality is, if Thompson is hobbled and Warriors defender Andre Iguodala – listed as doubtful with a similar bone bruise suffered in the West finals – isn’t available, Golden State’s ability to deal with LeBron James and other Cleveland scoring threats is hampered.

So if Smith can contribute in that way to an advantageous Cavs’ position for Game 2, it might soothe some of the sting from Game 1. He’s the guy, remember, who grabbed teammate George Hill’s missed free throw late in regulation but oddly dribbled away from the basket to squander a chance to win and avoid overtime.

Despite appearances, what even some Cleveland players concluded – that Smith must have thought his team was ahead, rather than tied at 107-107 at that moment – and a personal history of making similar gaffes, Smith claimed after the game that he indeed did know the score.

He backed off that version Saturday.

“After thinking about it a lot the last 24 hours or however many since the game was over,” Smith said, “I can’t say I was sure of anything at that point.”

Now that has the ring of truth to it for Earl Smith III.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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