Three takeaways from the Golden State Warriors’ 124-114 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals:
One bang-bang call can change everything
LeBron James was right there.
He’d pushed through everything — every defender Golden State could throw at him, every clanged shot by a teammate, every splashed Stephen Curry jumper and Kevin Durant shot over the top of a smaller opponent, even the Warriors’ vaunted third-quarter flurry — and he had his team up two with 50 seconds to go in the fourth quarter at Oracle Arena. Now, what Cleveland needed was a stop … so he went to try to get that, too.
As Durant drove in search of a score to knot the game, LeBron slid over into his path to take the charge, absorbing the contact and seeming to take back possession with 36 seconds to go:
Except … um … he didn’t?
As the play unfolded, referees Ken Mauer and Tony Brothers appeared to have different interpretations of what went down, with Mauer ready to whistle the offensive foul on Durant and Brothers prepared to call it a blocking foul on James. After Mauer went with the charge, the refs convened and wound up going to the video review monitor to consult with the league’s Replay Center in Secaucus, N.J.
After reviewing the play, the refs determined that James “was not in legal guarding position” as he slid to his left to take the charge, and reversed the call on the floor to make it a blocking foul. Durant took two free throws, made them, and tied the game at 104.
Now, if you were confused by that — by the referees having the leeway to overturn a judgment call on a block/charge play like that — you were not alone. In fact, you had some pretty distinguished company … like, for example, several active NBA players:
According to the league’s rulebook, officials can trigger a replay review on a block/charge call in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime when they “have determined that illegal contact has occurred […] but are not reasonably certain as to whether the defender was inside or outside the restricted area.” Then, once the review’s been triggered, they’re also able to check on whether the defender was in legal guarding position.
In a postgame interview, Mauer told a pool reporter that’s exactly what happened: They went to the monitors because they were unsure whether LeBron was in the restricted area when he and Durant collided and, once there, they “determined he was out of the restricted area, but he was not in a legal guarding position prior to Durant’s separate shooting motion.” Hence the change, and the free throws, which turned a two-point Cleveland lead into a tie game. Things got pretty crazy after that.
After the game, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue didn’t mince words in expressing just how upset he was at the referees deciding that a play where James was this far outside the restricted area …
… needed to be reviewed to see if he was, in fact, outside the restricted area.
“I mean, they called a charge. Right? And LeBron was clearly four feet outside the restricted area. So it doesn’t make sense to go review something,” Lue said. “The review is if he’s on the line, or if he’s close to the charge circle. That’s the review. He wasn’t close! So what are we reviewing? Either call a blocking foul or call an offensive foul. And you know, for our team to come out and play our hearts out and compete the way we did, man … I mean, it’s bad.”
Lue went on to say that this sort of block/charge reversal based on after-the-fact video evidence has “never been done, ever, in the history of the game.” That, it turns out, isn’t true. The rule’s been on the books for several years, and this particular brand of reversal happened earlier this season, in the final minute of the fourth quarter of a December game between the Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder:
We’re guessing that knowing he’s not the first coach to be on the business end of that call will come as cold comfort to Lue as he tries to prepare his team for Game 2.
“Tonight? In the Finals, on the biggest stage, when our team played well, played their ass off? Man, it just … it ain’t right,” he said. “It ain’t right.”
While Lue reserved his vitriol for the decision to review the play, James seemed most perplexed during his postgame press conference by the after-the-fact evaluation that he hadn’t been in legal guarding position.
“I read that play just as well as I’ve read any play in my career. Maybe in my life,” he said. “I seen the play happening, I knew I was outside the charge line, and I knew I took the hit. I don’t know what else to say.”
That evidently wasn’t a problem inside Cleveland’s locker room after the game.
If you’re a dispassionate observer, you look at it and say that this changed call on its own didn’t cost Cleveland the game any more than George Hill’s missed free throw, J.R. Smith’s final-seconds fugue state or any of the 22 3-pointers that James’ teammates missed in regulation did. Also, for what it’s worth: they got the call right. (A handful of other ones, though …)
But from where the Cavs are sitting, who knows how things would’ve played out in those last 36 seconds had the Warriors had been fighting their way back from a deficit rather than standing on equal footing? If they’d had to spend another 24 seconds — maybe more, given how dominant Cleveland was on the offensive glass in Game 1 — defending to get a stop so they could try to tie it on the last possession?
Maybe Hill never has to step to the line in that situation, and J.R. never has to make a decision on what to do with the ball in a tie game with 4.7 seconds to go, and the Cavs leave Oracle with home-court advantage after stunning the basketball world. Or, y’know, maybe not. The not knowing, though — that’s going to stick with the Cavs for the next two days. And maybe a lot longer than that.
The Cavs found a formula, but lost the game they had to steal
We entered Game 1 wondering what the hell a limited Cavs team could do to hang with a Warriors team that has more top-end talent, a deeper bench, a stingier defense and firepower all over the court. The answer: hammer the offensive glass, control the pace, and have LeBron go absolutely insane.
LeBron was a damned superhero in Game 1. He was perfect for the game’s first 18 minutes, not missing a shot until midway through the second quarter, no matter who was in front of him. He’d only miss one more in the first half, on his way to 24 points by intermission.
When Golden State threatened to reach escape velocity with a customary mid-third-quarter run, he answered with 10 points in 2 1/2 minutes — including an eff-you challenge 3 from Steph depths — to put Cleveland back on top. And after appearing to gas out late in the third quarter as the Warriors regained control, he came back with a vengeance in the fourth, scoring or assisting on 21 of Cleveland’s 29 points in the frame to get them within a heartbeat of what would’ve been one of the more stunning Game 1 upsets in NBA Finals history.
James was transcendent, the best player in the sport at the peak of his powers, going for 51 points on 19-for-32 shooting with eight rebounds, eight assists, a steal and a block in 48 minutes. Four of James’ eight rebounds came on the offensive glass, tying with Larry Nance Jr. for the team lead on a night where Cleveland pulverized the Warriors on the boards with 19 offensive rebounds leading to 21 second-chance points; the Cavs held a 53-38 edge on the glass overall, with all nine Cleveland players to get in the game pulling down at least two caroms.
As Houston did in the Western finals, the Cavs brought the physicality to Golden State inside, outhustling and outmuscling the Warriors for rebounding position, generating extra chances while looking to limit the Warriors’ chances to get out and run. Even so, Golden State had a 28-18 edge in fast-break points, seeming to get a layup, dunk or open look at a 3 every time the Cavs missed a shot at the rim. In general, though, with their work on the glass and with LeBron taking his time to selectively orchestrate which matchups he wanted to attack — working against Kevon Looney and David West in the first half, JaVale McGee (who held up pretty well!) and Curry late — the Cavs got the game played at their speed.
NBA.com’s stat tool pegs Game 1’s pace at 92.59 possessions per 48 minutes; Cleveland entered the Finals averaging 93.85, second-slowest of any postseason team (ahead of only the Indiana Pacers, who played Cleveland in Round 1), while the Warriors averaged just under 100 possessions-per-48 through the conference finals. Against a team whose system, style and stars allow them to dictate nearly everything to everyone, the Cavs controlled Game 1 … right up until they didn’t, and wound up losing by 10.
On one hand, the Cavs were within a hair’s breadth of winning despite non-LeBron Cavs shooting 7-for-30 from 3-point land, despite six missed free throws, despite Steph playing beautifully and combining with Klay for 10 3s, despite woeful games from J.R. and Jordan Clarkson, and despite giving up 28 fast-break points. On the other, though … I mean, you can’t expect LeBron to go for 51 again. You can’t expect Durant to go 8-for-22 from the field and 1-for-7 from long distance again.
When you get the chance to seize control of a series, you have to grab it with both hands. The Cavs just missed it on Thursday. They might not get this close again.
So, um, maybe this won’t be that boring after all
I’ll admit: I was not necessarily looking forward to doing this a fourth time. I’ll be happy to go to Cleveland for Games 3 and 4, but from a big-picture standpoint, “The Best Player vs. The Best Team” felt sort of tapped out, like it didn’t have much in the way of new stuff to offer us. And then LeBron goes for 51.
And Stephen Curry (29 points on 11-for-23 shooting, nine assists, six rebounds, only two turnovers in 46 minutes) plays like maybe he does want that Finals MVP trophy after all. And we get an insane final minute, the Warriors run away in overtime, Tristan Thompson and Draymond Green beef, everyone’s mad at everyone, and there’s 55 things to talk and think about between now and Sunday night. Let us never forget that I don’t know [expletive].
Maybe the Warriors lock in and reach another level defensively after a Game 1 scare. Maybe the Cavs play with less fire and run out of gas faster in Game 2, knowing they’ve squandered a golden opportunity. Maybe the rest of the series plays out to script, and we wind up going home dissatisfied by the conclusion of what’s been an up-and-down season. After watching what LeBron put together in Game 1, though, I’m ready to remain open to the possibility that we’re going to see something different.
We doubt him, and the prospective entertainment value that this league can provide, at our own peril. Lesson learned. Thanks for the reminder, guys.
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