OAKLAND, Calif. — J.R. Smith worked every sector of Oracle Arena to plead his case. He walked from his Cleveland Cavaliers teammates in the locker room to a hallway leading to the buses, using his arms to show his inner circle and friends in the league office the most critical play of Game 1 in these NBA Finals. The scene was set: Game tied at 107 with 4.7 seconds remaining Thursday night when Smith grabbed the offensive rebound and had a glaring lapse in judgment.
He dribbled the ball out to the 3-point line, his back turned waiting to receive an intentional foul as if he and the Cavaliers had a lead. Only an intentional foul never came because the only person Smith seemingly fooled inside Oracle was himself. J.R. Smith’s gaffe left Klay Thompson fist-pumping, had LeBron James and his 51 points languished — arms reaching outward to express how Smith erred — and helped the Warriors to a 124-114 overtime victory. The implications are grand, and Smith had the same message for his inner circle and the media.
“I knew it was tied,” Smith said.
After the game, James attempted to soften the public’s targeting of Smith. Team personnel, however, privately said Smith had lost track of the score. Yes, Cavaliers guard George Hill missed a critical go-ahead free throw that led to Smith’s offensive rebound. It is a make-or-miss league, and a made free throw would have given Cleveland the lead. Perhaps these Cavaliers lose anyway, as the Warriors had a timeout to utilize with less than five seconds left in regulation.
Here’s the problem with Smith’s response to all parties in the minutes and hours after Game 1: If he believed the Cavs were tied, why didn’t he attempt a shot in the waning moments — or pass the ball for one? Why not swiftly call for a timeout? No timeout was called, precious seconds ticked away, and the Cavaliers surrendered a potential Finals win. James had arguably his most dominant playoff performance — eight rebounds, eight assists, 19-of-32 shooting and three 3-pointers to go along with those 51 points, dunking and scoring in the paint at his own mercy — continuing to play at an all-time level. The ease with which he scores has become brilliant. And here was a livid James, walking off the Oracle Arena floor.
Throughout both teams, the sentiment on Smith had been strong.
“He thought it was over. He thought we were up one,” Cavaliers coach Ty Lue said.
“I guess he thought they were ahead,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.
“J.R’s thing … mistakes happen,” Cavaliers All-Star Kevin Love said.
Smith hadn’t addressed him nor the team, James said, and that accountability should come in Friday’s practice. If Smith understood the Cavaliers were tied, three options were available with 4.7 seconds remaining in regulation: a shot, pass or timeout. Neither a timely shot nor pass was delivered by Smith, and the coaching staff didn’t call a timeout. Hill launched a desperation heave from the corner from a late Smith pass as the buzzer sounded. Based on Smith’s ball-handling to run the ball past the 3-point line — based on him appearing to tell James, “I thought we were up” — Smith understood the severity of his miscue. He’s an NBA champion, resurrecting his career as a swingman alongside James, but this game could haunt the team this season and maybe forever.
“We let it get away tonight,” Smith said.
Prior to tipoff, NBA commissioner Adam Silver fielded a question about a fourth consecutive Finals between the Warriors and Cavaliers being detrimental to the league. Yet drama filled The Bay on Thursday night. James and Lue had taken clear aim at officiating when it came to James’ charge on Kevin Durant being reversed to a blocking foul, allowing Durant two free throws to tie the game at 104 with 36.4 seconds remaining. James had slid into position to take a fall outside the restricted circle, but the general lack of knowledge about the referees’ ability to change the call surprised most onlookers.
“I knew I was outside the charge line, and I knew I took the hit,” James said.
Added Lue: “You go there and overturn the call and say it’s a block … it’s never been done, ever, in the history of the game. And then tonight in the Finals? It ain’t right.”
Then came a last-second overtime scuffle among Shaun Livingston, Tristan Thompson and Draymond Green. Love, who returned from a one-game absence from concussion protocol and had 21 points and 13 rebounds, appeared to come off the bench and approach the court to question the foul call before being guided backward by an assistant coach as the incident with Thompson and Green began and resulted in a Flagrant 2 foul for Thompson.
Thompson had motioned for Green to meet him in the back hallways of Oracle, a microcosm of the Cavaliers’ frustrations. Mostly, this team must have seethed over an opportunity lost, a chance that might never be found again. By now, “you’re tired of those guys,” Thompson said of the Warriors.
This Finals series promises to become increasingly tiring for the Cavaliers. Stephen Curry (29 points, nine assists), Kevin Durant (26 points) and Klay Thompson (24 points) are still finding their rhythm as the Warriors’ three most potent scorers while Andre Iguodala (leg injury) will likely remain out until the series shifts to Cleveland.
All around him inside Oracle Arena, J.R. Smith heard the question from his closest confidants: What happened? I knew the score, knew the time and knew what to do, Smith told them. Something had gone awry, perhaps his mind had warped or an alternative truth centered in him during his postgame shower. Smith had dribbled out the clock on Thursday night, and may have dribbled out the Cavaliers’ best hope to take control of this Finals series.
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