The Cleveland Cavaliers Blew a Golden Opportunity in Game 1
Face it. The Cavaliers had a golden opportunity to steal Game 1 away from the Golden State Warriors on the road to take a 1-0 series lead. Coming in as major underdogs, the Cavs hung around with the Warriors for the entirety of the game in part to LeBron James carrying the team with 51 points. Outside of him, only two other Cavs scored in double-digits as Kevin Love dropped 21 points and JR Smith had 10. But despite the concentrated scoring on Cleveland's side, they found themselves ahead in the final minute when things got a little crazy.
The events to follow would change the outcome of the game in regulation, created memes, and ended in a Warriors 124-114 victory in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on a night where LeBron James posted another stellar postseason performance. The LeBron James foul call and Cleveland's final possession plays have been disputed more than any other which is what we will take a closer look at today.
LeBron James Charge Reversed
With the Cavaliers up 104-102, the Warriors had a chance to tie things up when Kevin Durant drove to the basket and was met by LeBron James in the paint. James seemingly took a hit from Durant and fell to the ground, drawing a charge to give the Cavs possession with 36.4 seconds remaining in the fourth. Upon review, the referees determined that James was outside of the restricted area but not in legal guarding position, changing the call to a blocking foul on LeBron. This would award Kevin Durant two free throws that he would end up making to tie the game up at 104. After the game one of the referees, Ken Mauer, explained why the play was reviewed in saying, "The reason for the trigger is that we had doubt as to whether or not James was in the restricted area. When over at the table, we then are allowed to determine whether or not he was in legal guarding position. It was determined he was out of the restricted area but was not in legal guarding position prior to Durant's separate shooting motion. So we had to change it to a blocking foul." Watching it live, my initial reaction was a blocking foul and that did not change after seeing replay. Mauer's crew made the right call by reversing it from a charge on Kevin Durant. See the play for yourself below:
Whether you like it or not, when you look at the play closer LeBron James is outside of the restricted area but does not establish position. As Durant comes into the lane, James does initially establish position in the paint which would make it a charge. However as Durant is cutting to the right side of the basket, James in an attempt to draw the charge slides to his left slightly and makes contact on Durant with his left shoulder as he falls to the ground. Keep in mind, the play was initially ruled a charge, but the play was not reviewed for whether it was a charging or blocking foul. The play was initally reviewed in order to check if James was in the restricted area or not, but the referees are allowed to check if he was in legal guarding position once they were at the table as Mauer explained. While it is a big break for Golden State and seemingly unfair to Cleveland, it was the right decision for the referees to make.
Cleveland's Final Possession
Down by one with 4.7 seconds left in regulation, George Hill was fouled and sent to the line for two free throws. He nailed the first one to tie the game up at 107, but missed the second one in which JR Smith got the rebound. Smith dribbled the ball beyond the three-point line as time winded down. As James yells at Smith and points towards the basket, Smith throws a pass to George Hill who gets his shot blocked who got his shot blocked. In that moment not only was the game headed to overtime, but Twitter was headed for an explosion of memes and questions about what JR Smith was thinking. Many questioned if Smith believed the Cavaliers were ahead by one and he was just trying to dribble out the clock. After the game, Smith spoke to reporters about the play and said, "I was trying to get enough to bring it out to get a shot off. 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." I do not buy this explaination by Smith and believe he thought the Cavaliers were ahead in this game. You be the judge and watch the play below:
After grabbing the rebound, Smith seemed to lack urgency in that moment as he simply took the ball out to half court. However, Tyronn Lue deserves some blame as well for not calling a timeout immediately following the rebound to put something together or once he sees Smith dribbling to half court. Additionally, if Smith knew the situation he should have attempted to either get a decent shot or get look for an open man on the Cavs to get a last second shot off. Regardless of what he says, it is clear he lacked awareness of what was going on in that moment and it led to what will be known as one of the more memorable plays in NBA Finals history.
But hear me out on this, not all the blame can be placed on JR Smith for his blunder at the end of the game. While it is blatantly obvious that Smith was unaware of the situation in that moment and it resulted in a disastrous final four seconds, we seem to forget what led to this play. The game was tied and George Hill was shooting his second free throw after being fouled, a shot he missed off the front of the rim. If Hill makes that free throw, Cleveland is up one with 4.7 seconds left and needs to make one stop on Golden State to secure the Game 1 victory. Smith's blunder looms large in the aftermath of this game and gets more attention than the fact Hill missed a crucial free throw that could have given his team the lead. A crucial miss followed by a lack of awareness miscue ultimately sunk the Cavs at the end of regulation, but Cleveland still had a chance to win it in overtime.
Without a doubt Cleveland had their chances to win this game in regulation, but they also still could have taken this game in overtime as well. A period in which they came out flat while Golden State rode the momentum of that Cleveland final possession to outscore the Cavs 17-7 and get the victory. There was a lot to look at in the final minute of this game that changed its outcome and potentially the outcome of this series. But at the end of the day the referees made the right call, the Cavaliers shot themselves in the foot multiple times at the end, and Cleveland will have to regroup for Game 2 if they want a shot at winning the series.
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