Following Game 1 of the NBA Finals held on May 31 in the Oracle Arena, Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James entered the visitors’ locker room and proceeded to punch the whiteboard so hard that he “basically broke his hand,” according to The Times-Gazette. This was a shocking admission from the world’s greatest basketball player following his team’s fourth loss in just as many tries, the first NBA Finals sweep since 2007, which had also included Lebron at 22 years old.
On May 31, the Cavaliers and LeBron entered the Oakland, California, arena as massive underdogs for Game 1. Any fan who had followed the previous three iterations of this matchup knew that this time would be different. A Cleveland team minus Kyrie Irving would have to play differently, and grind out every possession, playing gritty defense.
The Golden State Warriors had just come off a grueling seven-game series against a very worthy opponent in the Houston Rockets. They had less time to rest before the finals than the Cavaliers. Most pundits and fans understood that the Cavs needed to steal Game 1 on the road to have any chance at making this a competitive series.
The Cavs came out looking capable, forcing the Warriors to call the first timeout, which was a great sign. Cleveland would continue its strategy from years past, hounding Stephen Curry from the opening tip, at times over 30 feet from the hoop. The Cavs would force anyone else but Curry to beat them, and without Andre Iguodala, the Warriors were looking vulnerable to this strategy.
Of course, the Warriors still had Kevin Durant, who would pour in a steady 26 points to keep the Warriors within striking distance. The game felt as if neither team would be able to pull away from the other. The Warriors had let the Cavs hang around, which gave them confidence that they could maybe steal the game.
With the score 104-102 Cavs, and roughly 36 seconds remaining, Durant drove the lane. LeBron left the man he was defending in the post to dart in front of Durant and take the charge. It was the Cavs’ ball, and their chance to drain the clock and take a two-possession lead.
And then all hell broke loose.
The referees huddled together and decided to review the call. How could this be possible? A split-second judgment call under review?
The refs clarified that they were reviewing if LeBron was clear of the restricted area — which nullifies a charge call if any part of the defensive players’ feet are within the area. This rule was known to most casual fans, but no one could predict what would happen next. The referees reversed the charging call, not because LeBron was inside the area — he was clearly outside — but because they deemed the charge to in fact be a block, and thus Durant received two free throws. He made both and this would be the foul call that would swing the series.
After another made basket from the Cavs and then another made 3-point shot from the Warriors to take a lead of 107-106. LeBron brought the ball up the court with 10 seconds remaining on the clock.
The Warriors refused to let LeBron beat them, ready to double-team him if he tried to drive. Of course, the Cleveland star made the correct basketball decision, finding a cutting George Hill for what was a wide-open layup. The Warriors’ Klay Thompson fouled Hill to send him to the free-throw line, with a chance to put the Cavs ahead if he made both shots.
Hill, an 80 percent free-throw shooter, calmly knocked down the first — usually deemed the more pressure cooking one out of the two shots. He rose up for the second, but clanked it off the front of the rim. A missed free throw that would swing the series.
With 4.7 seconds left, there was plenty of time for the miss to bounce somewhere and swing the series. Unfortunately for the Cavs, it landed in J.R. Smith’s hands.
The enigma that is Smith perplexingly grabbed the rebound over the 7-foot Durant and began to dribble outward, obviously attempting to create space to shoot the ball over Durant. However, Smith continued dribbling, more than 30 feet out from the basket. LeBron raised his hands to point toward the basket as if urging his teammate to shoot the ball.
Smith instead panicked and passed the ball to Hill in the corner as time expired. Smith then turned around and looked at LeBron and the scoreboard above him. Then, as every online lip-reading troll crawled out of their cave to decipher his words, Smith told LeBron, “I thought we had the lead.” Add this latest boneheaded mistake that can swing a series to the list. In the end, the Cavs had it all, and they still could win the game in overtime.
But the fatalism of so many missed opportunities was too heavy for the Cavaliers. They only mustered seven points in overtime, losing 124-114.
Fifty-one points, eight rebounds and eight assists, in what could be considered the best NBA Finals single-game performance from LeBron, were wasted.
So what happened in the last three games? It doesn’t really matter. The Cavs, the huge underdogs on the road of the NBA Finals, knew they had to win Game 1. LeBron surely realized its magnitude, which was why he “basically” broke his hand out of frustration afterward.
The Warriors deserve some accolades too. They are champions again, three times in four years. They now enter rarified dynastic air. Right up there — post Bill Walton Boston Celtics — with Kobe Bryant’s or Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers, Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls and Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs.
The winners appear to be in no hurry to break up the greatest team of the era and should rightfully be the overwhelming favorites to repeat the process until their core separates. No superteam assembled in the future will touch what the Warriors possess: A fantastic core of four future hall-of-famers who play the ultimate team game. They have, single-handedly, changed the way major league basketball is played.
LeBron and the Cavs had their chance in Game 1 to, maybe, create a chink in the Golden State armor, but they came up short and who would win the series was never questioned afterward.
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