From LeBron James scoring a playoff-career high of 51 points to Kevin Love showing no ill effects after clearing the league’s concussion protocols before Thursday night’s tip-off to add 21 and 13 rebounds, the Cavaliers were poised to steal the opening game and home-court advantage from the Golden State Warriors as the fourth chapter of their NBA Finals rivalry opened.
Then came the reversed call via replay review that rightfully frustrated James after he thought he successfully drew a charge on Kevin Durant.
Followed by the missed free throw with 4.7 seconds to play in regulations that may haunt George Hill and cost the Cavaliers their best chance to win Game 1.
Followed by the still yet to be fully explained gaffe by J. R. Smith after his offensive rebound of Hill’s missed free throw that prevented Cleveland from getting any potential shot in those final 4.7 seconds to again steal the win.
Each action when stacked on top of the other proved too much weight to bear for the Cavaliers as the Warriors took full advantage of that second chance in overtime, riding the all-around game of Draymond Green to score 15 of the first 19 points in the extra period en route to a 124-114 victory. Green finished with a stunning line of 13 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists, five steals and two blocks to augment a 29-point game, nine-assist game from Stephen Curry and 26 points from Durant.
Dating back to 1984, only Michael Jordan (1989) and Rajon Rondo (2009) had recorded 13-11-9-5 games in the postseason.
The challenge James and the Cavaliers face trying to bring the series back to Cleveland even at one game apiece is to not wear those final 36.4 seconds of regulation like an albatross around their collective neck Sunday night. The post-game frustration was clearly evident in both James and coach Tyronn Lue, with the latter railing about the reversed call to the former walking out of the press conference when asked one too many times about whether he thought Smith knew what the score was.
For Golden State, the victory provided escape from what would have been an intense public inquest of all their mistakes over the course of 48 minutes before pouncing on a demoralized Cavaliers team in the extra five. The defending champions struggled all night on the boards, failed to stop James consistently and could not create game-breaking separation with one of their trademark scoring bursts in the third quarter.
Perhaps stopping James would have been easier if swingman Andre Iguodala was healthy enough to play, but there is no guarantee the veteran will be available for this contest. The 2015 NBA Finals MVP has missed the last five games with a lateral leg contusion suffered in a collision with James Harden late in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, and coach Steve Kerr labeled him “doubtful” for this contest Friday.
The series will move to Cleveland after this contest, starting with Game 3 on Wednesday night.
Five keys to the game
About those 19 offensive rebounds Cleveland grabbed - That the Cavaliers scored 21 second-chance points off 19 offensive rebounds was probably the most glaring problem to Kerr as he addressed the media Friday after watching the tape of Game 1. While he said he would continue to use a "center by committee" approach with Kevon Looney, JaVale McGee and rookie Jordan Bell, Kerr also thought his team's lack of aggression was a key reason for the discrepancy on the boards.
Klay Thompson shakes off ankle injury - All of Oracle Arena caught their collective breath midway through the first quarter when Smith accidentally rolled up Klay Thompson's ankle after he slipped on the court. Thompson went to the locker room to get an x-ray, and after some sprints in the hallway, returned by the start of the second period.
He finished with 24 points, making five of ten from 3-point range as he and Curry did significant damage on the perimeter by draining ten of 21 from deep. Speaking via teleconference Friday, Thompson said he felt the usual day-after soreness and also noted, "At this point of the year, everyone is going to be a little banged up, so you have to play through it. You can be sore going into the summertime. That's how I look at it."
The pose that launched a thousand memes - Should Golden State win this series, or even worse for Cleveland, the Warriors sweep the Cavaliers, the lasting memory of the 2018 NBA Finals will be James with his arms outstretched towards his basket with an incredulous look at Smith after asking his teammate what he was thinking in the closing seconds of regulation.
All humor aside, that's no way for James' 51-point, eight-rebound, eight-assist performance that is one of the greatest in NBA Finals history to be forgotten when losing the game is painful enough.
Substitutes shine for both teams - Both teams got key contributions off the bench in various forms. For the Cavaliers, Larry Nance Jr had nine points and a playoff-career high 11 rebounds in just under 20 minutes as he made sure there was no falloff in the paint when he spelled Tristan Thompson at the center spot.
Golden State had all six of their bench players who saw meaningful minutes score at least two points, but Shaun Livingston and JaVale McGee stood out the most. Livingston hit all four of his shots and finished with ten points as Kerr opted for veteran poise over a pair of gassed youngsters in Looney and Bell. McGee, who played just three minutes in the conference finals, was a key contributor on both ends of the court in Golden State's 10-3 burst to open the second half as he twice frustrated James after picking him up following a switch on a screen.
Your statistical reminders LeBron James continues to be REALLY good at playoff basketball - Lost in the backwash of all the controversy of the last minute of regulation in overtime was James matching two highly regarded postseason records. The immediate one was him tying Jerry West (a.k.a. "The Logo") for the single-season playoff record with eight games of 40 or more points he established in 1965.
He also is now only the sixth player in league history to score 50 points in an NBA Finals game, but he is the first among West (1969), Jordan (1993), Bob Pettit (1958), Elgin Baylor (1962) and Rick Barry (1967) to do so in a losing effort.
The second was him matching Jordan's all-time postseason standard of 109 games with 30 or more points. James also grabbed four offensive rebounds, moving him ahead of Clyde Drexler, Larry Bird and Julius Erving into 21st place on the all-time list with 361 offensive caroms. He's six shy of matching "The Admiral" David Robinson at No. 20.
By going 19 for 32, James also improved his shooting percentage in this postseason to 54.6, up from the 54.2 mark he carried into the NBA Finals.
Matchup to watch
LeBron James vs Kevin Durant - Kerr made a salient point Friday, telling reporters "I didn't think we were very good against him last night. I thought he was spectacular, but I didn't think we made it that difficult for him."
The first sentence is typical Kerr understatement for a laugh, but the second sentence definitely rings true.
He also refused to single out Durant, whose 26 points on eight-of-22 shooting hid the fact he had a mediocre game by his standards, even with nine rebounds and six assists. Durant, who missed all four of his fourth-quarter shots, also failed to box out Smith on Hill's missed free throw that nearly cost Golden State the opener of this series.
But the crux of this being James versus Durant is that the Warriors forward usually starts Cleveland's possessions guarding James. Then the Cavaliers will cycle through their screens above the foul line, and sometimes it is just one screen, but all too frequently, Durant switched on the screen and the result would be Curry guarding James.
While Curry is not a bad defender, no one in the NBA is really a good defender in space because every NBA player can hit an uncontested jumper consistently. Curry moves off the ball defensively as well as any player, he does the same offensively to breathtaking effect.
To take that to the next level, no one in the league can stop James when he makes his bull-rush into the paint on a drive, especially when he is given the space to make one dribble forward to build momentum that now puts him inside the paint.
That was the biggest problem Golden State faced after Durant would switch off him and leave Curry 1-on-1 with James. The Warriors point guard often guarded him at arm's length because the alternative would have been James and his 250-pound (or so says NBA.com) frame backing down the 190-pound Curry into the paint.
James took 18 of his 32 shots inside the paint and made 12 of them. Ten of those 18 shots were inside the restricted area and he made nine. Given the screener more times than not is Tristan Thompson, it is surprising Kerr allows Durant to switch off given he has the length (remember, Durant is for all intents and purposes a seven-footer despite his 6 '9" listing) to disrupt James' passing vision to prevent Thompson from catching an entry pass with his back to the basket against Curry, never mind the fact Thompson lacks an array of post moves to make the most of such a matchup.
But since it is easier for everyone to switch or everyone to stay home, look for this cat-and-mouse game to continue every time James brings the ball up to start the offense.
Cleveland Cavaliers projected starting lineup
PG - George Hill | SG - J. R. Smith | C - Tristan Thompson | SF - LeBron James | PF - Kevin Love
Golden State Warriors projected starting lineup
PG - Stephen Curry | SG - Klay Thompson | C - Kevon Looney | SF - Kevin Durant | PF - Draymond Green
For the one or two people left on the planet who refuse to use James in a DFS lineup because they deem him too expensive, consider that on top of the 51 points he scored while shooting 59.3 percent in Game 1, three of his eight assists were on 3-pointers. So technically, James was responsible for 70 points before even counting the passes he made to teammates who were then fouled and sank free throws.
Just play the man already.
Love's double-double was his sixth of this postseason, but his one-of-eight shooting from 3-point range was also his worst of the playoffs when making at least one trey. The one concern for DFS players about Love is that he has had his best games of the NBA Finals in Game 1 in each of the last three years, totaling 53 points and 47 rebounds.
In the other eight games versus Golden State, Love has averaged only 11.0 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting 29.7 percent from 3-point range.
Curry has hit five or more 3-pointers in five of Golden State's last six games, shooting 41.1 percent from deep while averaging 28.3 points and 5.7 assists in that stretch. He also has notched six or more assists in his last four contests.
Splash Brother Thompson has been a torrid 55.3 percent from beyond the arc (21 for 38) in his last four games and averaging 25.3 points on 56.1 percent shooting overall. He is 22 for 45 from 3-point range in his last five NBA Finals games versus the Cavaliers while averaging 20.0 points.
Apparently seeing the Cavaliers nearly steal a straight-up victory at Oracle Arena did not faze the oddsmakers, who have installed the Warriors as 12.5-point favorites to win Game 2.
Cleveland's victory against the number was their fourth straight against Western Conference opponents and their fifth in six games overall. The Cavaliers also improved to 5-1 in their last six games against the spread when facing opponents with a winning percentage above .600, but they are still just 5-14 in their last 19 versus Pacific Division teams.
Golden State have now lost their last four against the spread to Eastern Conference teams and five consecutive contests versus Central Division rivals. The Warriors are also 6-18 against the number in their last 24 contests following a straight-up win and 12-25 in their last 37 at Oracle Arena when facing above-.500 teams.
The over/under is 215.5 points, and though they needed overtime to hit the over, it was the fifth straight time they have done so in the NBA Finals. The over is sporting a 5-2 record in the last seven games for both teams when they face above-.500 opponents, but the under is 7-2 in games after the Warriors score 100 or more points.
Not since Dallas Mavericks rookie Derek Harper dribbled out the final seconds of regulation at the end of Game 4 in the 1984 Western Conference finals thinking his team was ahead when they were tied has there been a more memorable gaffe in NBA playoff history than the one Smith had Thursday night. And that lapse also proved costly because the Mavericks were down 2-1 in the series, lost in overtime and eventually lost the series 4-1.
The replays are now in the millions, from Smith dribbling away from the basket, to James' now-already iconic pose and subsequent walking off the dais in his Bermuda shorts and suit (this space found the look sharp) after ESPN's Mark Schwarz asked a variation of "what do you think J. R. Smith was thinking?" one too many times, and this does not even factor the reversed block/charge call that also impacted the game as it went from Cleveland potentially having the ball up two with 36.4 seconds to play to Durant tying it with a pair of free throws.
Yet the question that most urgently needs to be answered cannot be answered until Sunday night: How will the Cavaliers respond?
What became a game that would have been playing with house money with a worst-case scenario of heading back to Cleveland tied 1-1 has now turned into the start of a destructive cycle that could result in a Game 2 rout by the Warriors in which the term "sweep" will be used ad infinitum in the 48 hours between Games 2 and 3 and drummed into the Cavaliers' collective head.
James, of course, will be above all this. Mainly because he has no choice but to play well. If he falls apart, the Cavaliers will quickly follow suit. While the Warriors insisted they knew what was coming as these teams started their fourth straight NBA Finals against each other, they didn't really know just what kind of level James had been operating at this postseason.
Now they do. And it has likely scared them back into whiplash-like attention.
Lue devised Cleveland's offense for this series knowing full well James needs to take at least 30 shots, give or take a few depending on how often he gets to the foul line, to have any chance of winning a game, and by extension, this series. James will average at least 40 points unless he has multiple off nights over the next three games.
Whether he averages closer to 50 will be contingent on Golden State and their defense.
The Warriors played well in spurts but also learned they have to do more. When Golden State move the ball, they are unstoppable. Multiple passes lead to multiple open looks as a good shot gets passed up for a better one. That has been the Warriors offensive ethos since Kerr arrived in 2014.
Durant's isolation plays should be relegated to shot clock bailouts, not designed plays. When that happens, he becomes little more than a rich man's Carmelo Anthony.
James will do all he can, but it won't be enough. Look for Golden State to held to Cleveland up 2-0 after recording a 121-104 victory.
The game will be televised nationally on ABC and nationally in Canada on SportsNet and SportsNet 1. Tip-off time is 8 pm EDT.
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