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OAKLAND, Calif. — Exasperated by a wasted effort in a stunning loss, irritated by some questionable officiating, and agitated by questions about J.R. Smith’s inexplicable mental lapse, LeBron James decided he was done for the evening. James placed the microphone on the podium, slipped on sunglasses, scooped up his ginormous man purse, and served up one more lecture for inquiring minds in the room: “Be better tomorrow.”
The message was intended for a reporter who drove him beyond annoyance, but it could also be used as a rallying cry for his Cleveland Cavaliers. After their disappointing loss to the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday, many of the Cavaliers had their fingers pointed squarely at the officiating crew that they believe cost them the game. They dropped F-bombs in the locker room. Coach Tyronn Lue claimed the Cavaliers were “robbed” when James drew an offensive foul on Kevin Durant, but later had the call overturned following a review that was triggered to determine if James was in the restricted area near the basket. James was perturbed by the call — which was upheld Friday in the league’s Last Two Minutes Report — and some other fouls and non-calls that went in the Warriors’ favor. Afterward, he said, “Some plays … were kind of taken away from us. Simple as that.”
But the Cavaliers can’t change what has already been done. They can’t control rulings on the floor or in the NBA replay center in Secaucus, New Jersey. They can, however, “be better.”
Even after the uproar over the block/charge reversal and the perceived phantom whistles, Cleveland still had George Hill at the foul line with 4.7 seconds left and a chance to take the lead. It still had Smith snatching a rebound from Durant close enough to make a go-ahead layup or fadeaway jumper. Smith’s apparent ignorance with regard to time and score was on display as he dribbled out the clock, helplessly looked at an incredulous James and appeared to say, “I thought we were ahead.” Even after all of that, the Cavaliers still had a five-minute overtime frame to complete the upset. By then, James was broken, the rest of his teammates were just ready for the game to be over and the Warriors snatched it.
Bad breaks and mental lapses aren’t easily overcome in the Finals. San Antonio never recovered from allowing Chris Bosh to rebound the ball and find Ray Allen in the corner for a tying 3-pointer in Game 6 in 2013. The Spurs surrendered in overtime and had nothing for Game 7. Rasheed Wallace chased Manu Ginobili in the corner and left Robert Horry open for a go-ahead three in Game 5 in 2005. Detroit won the next game but also went down in seven. It’s hard enough winning four games off any team when you reach this point in the season, so having to win five times against a very good opponent is even more demoralizing.
“We’re not broken, all right? We lost a game,” Lue said Friday in a conference call with reporters. “You’ve got to win four in the series. We understand that. It was a tough game for us. We played well enough to win, but we didn’t. Now we’ve got to move on. The guys’ confidence is not shaken. We’ll see what we need to do and how we need to perform to win. We have the blueprint, so now we have to execute at a higher level.”
Smith’s blunder is an all-timer and set him up for internet roasts long after his playing career is over. Missing a shot, coughing up the ball, or blowing a defensive assignment are common offenses in the NBA, but Smith committed the indefensible — he didn’t seem to know the score. James’ anguished face as he looked at Smith — similar to that of a disappointed parent who patiently and diligently explained the rules to the kid — said more than any words could. Though Smith has absorbed an inordinate amount of blame, Hill took the defeat especially hard. He knows he could’ve spared Smith scapegoat status and possibly given the Cavaliers a well-earned win by simply making the free throw.
“I stayed up most of the night rewatching the free throw, rewatching the play. Just going over it in my head what I think went wrong,” Hill said. “As a player, competitive guy, put in a situation to help my team win a game, and I didn’t come through. So for me, it sucked. It was one of the worst feelings ever.”
James played the basketball equivalent of a perfect game in regulation, scoring a playoff career-high 49 points with eight assists and seven rebounds in 43 minutes. He got the Cavaliers there, just needed his teammates not to do anything stupid. And, well … Drained physically and mentally by the time overtime came around, James added two free throws and missed all four of his shots. Smacking a Stephen Curry layup attempt off the glass provided the only outlet for him to vent his frustration. Curry jokingly asked James why he wouldn’t let him score and James shoved him away, cursing as he told him to get out of his face. James said earlier this postseason that he loses sleep after any playoff loss, and it’s hard to imagine he had any after admitting how much Game 1 stung.
“We played as well as we’ve played all postseason, and we gave ourselves a chance possession after possession after possession,” James said.
The Finals have only produced six 50-point games, but not only was James the first to have such a performance in a loss, his epic showing somehow became a footnote to the other absurdities. All postseason, James has been able to bounce back and give the Cavaliers every ounce of juice he can squeeze from that orange. In Game 1, his teammates knocked the glass over and stained the carpet, too, but they’ll need more of the same from James to have any chance of finishing the job in Game 2. Lue was asked if James was capable of playing better than he did.
“I hope so,” Lue said with a laugh.
Be better. And that includes everyone.
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