2018 NBA Finals: Warriors vs. Cavaliers

Five things we learned from unforgettable Game 1 of NBA Finals

Thoughts on unwritten rules, rules-within-rules, Hill's anguish, LeBron's greatness and what lies ahead

OAKLAND — Five things we learned from the Golden State Warriors’ 124-114 overtime victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals.

1. Rules vs. rules-within-rules vs. getting it right

As we get going here, let’s be candid and admit that the only reason we’re sticking with the “Five things …” concept is because it’s a Finals tradition around here. Fact is, we could have redubbed it “Fourteen things …” and still have had to cram in a few combo items to do justice to every crazy moment, crucial play and instance of high drama or low comedy in this one.

We’re starting with a macro take on the night’s most hotly debated play, namely, the block/charge call in the final minute that swung from Cleveland’s advantage to Golden State’s. The aftermath, in volume of commentary and in intensity, suggests we’ve hit on a big-picture issue that relates not just to this Warriors-Cavaliers redux. It cuts across all sports and reaches into the culture and society, too, if we let it.

The issue essentially is: Do we want to get things “right?” Or do we want to follow the rules?

Folks incensed that the referees in Game 1 were able to go back in time and get a do-over on a judgment call when LeBron James’ defensive collision with lane-attacking Kevin Durant was ruled first a charge, then overturned after replay review and labeled a blocking foul. It does not seem to matter to those upset by the process that the final outcome seemed to be correct — James had not established proper “guarding position” and was both moving and turning sideways at the time of contact.

So what, skeptics say. It’s wrong to overturn some calls and not others.

Well, the referees did follow the rules, as we wrote about here.

Trouble is, it’s a tricky rule — a compound rule, if you will, with cascading consequences — only recently (2012-13) instituted. And it flies in the face of what preceded it by more than six decades, as far as unblowing whistles and unseeing infractions.

Kind of like the use of video replays in the moment themselves. Now that it’s here, though, who willingly would go back and do without it? Like air conditioning, DVRs or any other technological advancement.

Here are some random thoughts on the play and its aftermath:

• Everyone who says James’ sneakers “clearly” were not in the restricted area saw a replay that confirmed it. Why shouldn’t the referees, working at court level, get the same views?

Referee Ken Mauer, near the baseline with the play moving toward him, hesitated in making his charge call. It looks like he noticed colleague Tony Brothers, on the left wing, about to call James for a block. That difference in how they saw the play — besides illustrating how 50/50 such calls can be — might have been enough, human nature intruding, to send them to the replay machinery. That, and the fact that the convergence of three pairs of feet (James’, Durant’s and initial defender Jeff Green’s) might have planted doubt about someone stepping on the semi-circle.

• People livid at Mauer for changing the call, chill. It was veteran referee Mike Callahan in the Replay Center in Secaucus, N.J., who overturned Mauer’s charge call.

• What’s so special about block/charge calls that they should be eligible to be overturned, based on the technical matter of feet-in-restricted area? Why is that one replay “trigger” larded up with the extra options? That isn’t the case on out-of-bounds plays, for instance. If someone whacks the arm of the player who last touched the ball, the refs aren’t allowed to call that foul off replay. It creates the opportunity for a bogus claim about the restricted area, just to get another bite at the apple of the tough block/charge decision.

• What’s so special about the final two minutes of the game that none of this applies to the first 46?

The best way to address that last point: Allow. Coaches. Challenges. If both sides got two opportunities per game to ask the referees to review a play, a whole bunch of equally pivotal moments that get brushed aside through the first 95.8 percent of any game.

2. Hill’s dream moment morphed into a nightmare

Cleveland point guard George Hill sat for a long time after the game at his stall in the visitors’ dressing room staring at his phone. He trudged around the shower/sink area for a while, grimacing here, flailing an arm there, by himself, the other Cavs occupied with their own postgame business, his body language some mix of disgust and frustration.

Hill — a career 80 percent free-throw shooter — had missed a chance with 4.7 seconds left to win Game 1, in a Finals for which he’s waited his whole career. If Hill completes that simple (for him, most of the time) basketball task, J.R. Smith’s subsequent brain cramp as the clock ran out in regulation, the block/charge controversy, the skirmishes at the end of OT that might impact Game 2 — none of that matters or even happens.

While Smith and Tristan Thompson took their turns standing in front of and taking questions about their antics from a glut of reporters and camera wielders in the Cavs’ locker room, Hill slipped out. He got a pass on addressing his plummet from potential hero to goat. Hill expressed his feelings about the missed free throw at a media conference call Friday afternoon.

3. Unwritten rules are unwritten for a reason

We get it. Nobody in sports likes being “shown up.” It’s understandable to not be pleased when an opponent adds an unnecessary flourish to their victory, like a pitcher staring down a batter he’s just struck out or, in this case, like Golden State’s Shaun Livingston firing up a shot with only a few seconds left in a game his team led by eight.

But do you rumble over and foul Livingston the way Thompson did, earning himself a flagrant 2 foul and instant ejection? Brothers, the ref on that play, saw Thompson’s elbow coming up high and cocking, at least from his point of view. Keep in mind, the shot clock was expiring before the game clock, and Warriors coach Steve Kerr instructs his guys to shoot rather than take intentional turnovers in such circumstances.

What follows, though, is Thompson — already ejected from the game — staying on the floor long enough to push the basketball into Draymond Green’s face, while making hand-to-head contact. Cue histrionics and extracurriculars, including Kevin Love appearing to come off the Cavs’ bench in the kerfuffle. That’s strictly prohibited, prompting some on social media to call for Love as well as Thompson to face suspensions from Game 2.

In Love’s case, he already had stepped on the floor, inside the 3-point line, to make some other point. So he ought not face any repercussions. Thompson? Well, he had no business still being on the court at all when he engaged Green. A swifter exit might have saved him from himself.

But the larger point here is, enough with the “codes” by which players (and baseball managers) temporarily lose their minds over some stupid, perceived affront to their pride in the dwindling seconds of a decided game. Pushing back against that nonsense is a waste of time and potentially detrimental to the next game.

Beat them. That’s it. To the victors go the spoils. Players show themselves up if they let that into their heads.

4. It’s amazing what can get overshadowed

If a legendary NBA player scored 51 points in nearly 48 minutes on the floor, with eight rebounds and eight assists, and everyone was too distracted or agitated to notice properly, did it happen?Like the tree falling in the proverbial forest, yes, yes it did. James turned in a Finals performance for the ages, only the sixth game of 50 points or more in NBA playoff history — and the first for a team that lost. James no doubt would have preferred to finish with 49 points and a minus-3 in plus/minus for the game, if only Hill had scored eight points instead of seven. James was 0 for 4 with two free throws, one rebound, one block and a minus-10 in the extra five minutes.

Also overshadowed: Love looking fine after missing Game 7 of the East finals at Boston and spending a week in the NBA’s concussion protocol program. The Cavs forward had 21 points and 13 rebounds in 39 minutes, All-Star numbers that will need to be replicated through the series if Cleveland hopes to recover and win it.

Klay Thompson’s 24-point night also got neglected in most accounts, notable because most of it came after his services appeared to be lost to Golden State for the night, perhaps for the Finals. That came midway through the first quarter when Smith recklessly dove for a loose ball, slamming into Thompson’s left leg and bending it in a way that screamed out “ACL damage!”

The Warriors didn’t just get lucky when J.R. did his J.R thing near the end.

By returning, Thompson also was able to chip in superior postgame quotage: “My spot-up ability will always gravitate the defense.”

5. How pivotal will this zany opener be?

This wasn’t like Pete Carroll — oops! — calling a pass play for the Seahawks near the end of Super Bowl XLIX. Plenty of time here for the various miscues and controversies to be righted or forgotten in a best-of-seven series.

Whether they are or not depends on the Cavaliers’ resiliency vs. temptation to feel sorry for themselves. On the Warriors’ understanding that they caught nearly every break and still scrambled to win at home.

And on the continued healing process of Golden State’s chief LeBron defender, Andre Iguodala, from the bone bruise in his left leg that kept him sidelined Thursday.

James likes to call Game 1 of any series a “feel-out game,” and often dials up his production from there. What, in the name of all that’s holy, if he does that again?

For the record, teams that win Game 1 of the Finals are 50-21 (.704) through the years at actually winning the championship. Those who snag the opener at home are 42-12 (.748).

Finally, we’ll exit on this, a different camera angle than the one seen on the official postgame broadcasts. Instead of cutting away to the questioner, relating info about Smith, it stays on Green in all his comedic mugging glory.

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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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