2018 NBA Finals: Warriors vs. Cavaliers

Cleveland Cavaliers lament reversal of critical late charge

LeBron James' defensive play late in regulation of Game 1 was deemed block upon video review

OAKLAND – Sometimes toothpaste does go back into the tube.

Veteran NBA game officials past and present will tell you that few plays on the court are more difficult to adjudicate than block/charge call. The challenge of getting that play right – after first getting it wrong, apparently – was pivotal in the outcome of Golden State’s 124-114 overtime victory over Cleveland in Game 1 of the 2018 Finals Thursday at Oracle Arena.

In the final minute of the fourth quarter, his team trailing 104-102, Warriors forward Kevin Durant drove toward the basket with Cleveland’s Jeff Green at his side. Coming in from Durant’s left, LeBron James moved into his path and took the hit, falling on his back to the floor.

The initial call appeared to be a charge on Durant. But in the chaos of the moment, there also seemed to be conflicting views by two of the three referees. Next thing you knew, the refs were headed to the scorer’s table for a replay review.

[Insert intense impatience on both sides here. Tick. Tock.]

When crew chief Ken Mauer emerged from the replay huddle, in consultation with the NBA’s Replay Center in Secaucus, N.J., the ruling was …

Blocking foul on James. Two free throws for Durant.

The frustration and disagreement was apparent on the faces of James and Cavs coach Tyronn Lue as ref Tony Brothers relayed the decision on the sideline.

Durant hit both foul shots. What could have been the lead and possession of the ball for the Cavaliers instead became a tie game at 104-104, 36.4 seconds left.

From there, amid further twists and turns, the game went to overtime at 107-107. And Golden State controlled those five minutes, with a 17-7 scoring edge in those five minutes that blurred what happened in the first 48.

It hit hard on the Cavaliers, who felt mistreated by the review and the verdict.

It was determined he was out of the restricted area, but he was not in a legal guarding position prior to Durant’s separate shooting motion. So we had to change it to a blocking foul.”

Crew chief Ken Mauer, on late foul on LeBron James

“For our team to come out and play their hearts out and compete the way we did, man, I mean, it’s bad,” Lue said. “Its never been done before where you know he’s outside the restricted area 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.”

Only since the 2012-13 season, according to the NBA Official web site, have refs been permitted to review such block/charge situations. The “trigger,” to use the league’s replay terminology, is uncertainty over the defensive player’s position either in or outside the restricted area (that semi-circle under the rim).

That’s the explanation offered by Mauer late Thursday.

“The reason for the trigger is that we had doubt as to whether or not James was in the restricted area,” Mauer told a pool reporter. “When over at the table, we then are allowed to determine whether or not he was in a legal guarding position. It was determined he was out of the restricted area, but he was not in a legal guarding position prior to Durant’s separate shooting motion. So we had to change it to a blocking foul.”

Letter of the law? Guess so. But given the reluctance historically of NBA refs to un-call a foul or otherwise reverse a judgment call, the switch stood out to many as extremely rare.

James did seem to turn his shoulder to Durant as he slid over, so “legal guarding position” might have been hard to prove. But the Cavaliers – who saw on replays that their star and leader clearly was outside the semi-circle – immediately doubted how much doubt the refs actually had.

“LeBron was clearly four feet outside the restricted area,” Lue said. “So it doesn’t make sense to go review [it].”

Said James, who posted an historic Finals stats line of 51 points, eight rebounds and eight assists while making 19 of 32 shots, said: “I thought I read that play as well as I read any play in my career, defensively.”

For the Warriors, the reversal was like a reprieve from the governor. They still had time, but life would have been much more difficult had Durant been called for a charge.

“It looked like a block to me,” Golden State guard Klay Thompson said.

There still were misadventures to come. Cleveland’s George Hill got to the line at 107-106 and 4.7 seconds left. An 80 percent foul shooter, Hill made his first free throw. Then missed his second.

But wait, there’s more: Cavs gunner J.R. Smith slipped in to grab the miss. Only, instead of going right back up for a shot, Smith dribbled to the right wing. Even as James implored Smith to pass him the ball or head toward the basket, the veteran shooting guard shoveled the ball to Hill in the right corner. Hill’s awkward fling looked late and wasn’t close as time expired.

The way it looked, Smith seemed to think his team had the lead. Not true, he said.

“I tried to bring it out and get enough space to maybe get a shot off,” he said. “If I thought we were ahead, I would have just held onto the ball and let them foul me.”

Said Lue: “He thought it was over. He thought we were up one.”

Oh, and as something to enflame emotions and liven up media coverage before Game 2 Sunday, there was a kerfuffle in the final seconds involving Tristan Thompson, Shaun Livingston, Draymond Green, violations of various “codes” and unwritten rules and some likely verdicts issued from NBA headquarters in the next 72 hours.

But for Cleveland, as frustrated as the Cavs might have been with Smith, as bummed as they were over Hill’s missed free throw and as badly as it stung to squander James’ masterful performance, the block/charge overturn was the one that stuck.

That’s the one that’ll leave a mark.

“Man, it ain’t right,” Lue said. “It ain’t right.”

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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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