The Cavaliers should have won Game 1. You really can’t argue that the biggest underdogs the NBA Finals have seen in almost two decades should have walked off the Oracle Arena court Thursday night with a 1-0 lead over the heavily favored Warriors.
But JR Smith happened. Or at least that's going to be the most popular narrative from Game 1.
The mercurial Cavaliers guard, the one whose shoot from anywhere mentality has endeared him to all kinds of fans and pissed off just as many, will forever be associated with one of the most boneheaded plays—if not the most—in NBA Finals history.
But whatever you do, and whatever hot takes you want to fire off on the TL or discuss with your crew before Game 2 Sunday, don’t get it confused: Smith isn't the reason the Cavaliers lost. There are plenty of culprits to blame—some self-inflicted, others that were out of the Cavaliers control. But when you forget the score and deprive your team of a decent shot to win the game in the closing seconds of a highly charged and extremely dramatic NBA Finals game, you’re going to catch plenty of shit on social media, in the barbershop, and anywhere else anyone is talking about this game.
The memes roasting JR for grabbing the offensive rebound of George Hill’s missed free throw with 4.5 seconds left, with the Cavs and Warriors tied at 107, and trying to run out the clock before realizing at the last moment the error of his ways, have been every bit as impressive as LeBron James’s 51-point performance. It appeared Smith thought the Cavaliers had the lead at the time, otherwise there's absolutely no reason to dart to mid-court and waste three seconds, pulling the ball some 40 feet away from the basket and failing to give it to LeBron for one final heave.
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“He thought we were up one,” Cavaliers coach Ty Lue said after the game, describing the play.
Smith, defending himself, contradicted his head coach.
"I was trying to get enough to bring it out to get a shot off," Smith, who finished with 10 points, told reporters after the game. "I knew we were tied, I thought we were going to call timeout. If I thought we were ahead, I'd have held onto the ball and let them foul me."
Whether you believe him or not, don’t get caught up in the popular and easy narrative that Smith is the one who should die at the stake for the Game 1 loss. Kevin Durant even came to his defense.
"Anything can happen on the basketball court," Kevin Durant, who finished with 26, said after the game. "You know—we've all done stuff like that on the basketball court. I can't talk about a situation in that way, because I do some dumb stuff on the court. I don't know what was going through JR's head but he made a great rebound and gave them a chance to win the basketball game."
Hill deserves plenty of blame for missing that free throw. An 80 percent career free throw shooter, the 10-year veteran was shooting the same mark from the line during this year's playoffs. It’s a free throw he has to make to put the Cavaliers up one and force the Warriors to heave up a shot at the buzzer. Don't let him off the hook.
There’s also the referees who likely bungled the "was it a charge?/was it a block?" call on Durant’s drive toward the basket with under a minute left that, real talk, drastically changed the game. If the charge call stands, the Cavs get the ball with 36.4 seconds to go with a one-point lead and could have easily looked to pad it. Instead, they got the ball back trailing.
Cleveland was so close to stealing a game on the road, to stamping that this series wasn't going to be another coronation of the Golden State Warriors in four or five games, that the brilliance of LeBron could be enough to pull off the unthinkable. He even said after the game that this was the best his team played the entire postseason. Instead, Golden State has the series lead and remains in the driver seat toward a third championship over the last four years. That's a terrible loss, borderline devastating, and it's going to be fascinating to see how the Cavaliers respond in the early portions of Game 2. Will the bad energy hang around them for the next two off days and linger til tip Sunday evening?
But until then, nobody wants to talk about that. The talk will be about Smith and the boneheaded play. It will partially mask what was one hell of a game with a million subplots. The Cavaliers came in as 12.5-point underdogs, but rode the brilliance of LeBron for the millionth time this postseason. Klay Thompson messed up his knee thanks to Smith earlier in the game, but came back to finish with 24 points. Steph Curry had an impressive 29 to lead the way for the Warriors and he and Thompson were part of the smack talking spectacle with two seconds left in overtime that saw Tristan Thompson get the boot for a Flagrant 2 foul. That little scuffle could easily have major repercussions going forward considering Thompson was surprisingly effective against the Warriors in Game 1 after he barely saw any action against Golden State in last year’s Finals. Also, video replay showed Kevin Love kind of leaving the bench area to help out his teammates early that maybe the NBA does not look too kindly upon.
Despite all of that, Smith’s brain fart is going to dominate the news cycle. Yeah, it was bad. Yeah, it was boneheaded. Yeah, it was kind of quintessential JR right there—in is own little world, completely oblivious to what’s going on around him, and creating the wrong kind of memory. But JR does not deserve all the blame. He deserves some. Just be sure to spread the wealth.