OAKLAND, Calif. — So much for the boring NBA Finals. In Game 1 alone, we saw one of the biggest underdogs in recent memory nearly steal home-court advantage on the strength of a historic performance. But now, after one of the more clueless plays in recent memory — and a separate, highly controversial foul reversal — things may play out the way everyone figured they would.
Even after officials took the extremely rare step of changing a charge call to a LeBron James blocking foul with 36 seconds to go, Cleveland squandered two great opportunities to steal Game 1. George Hill missed a free throw that would have put the Cavs up by 1 point with 4.7 seconds left. Then, after snatching the ensuing rebound, JR Smith sought to run out the clock on a tie game by dribbling back out near half-court, sending the contest into overtime and himself into NBA Finals infamy.
The play by Smith is historic because of how costly it turned out to be — it opened the door for the loaded Warriors to dominate the extra period and wasted James’s 51-point, 8-rebound, 8-assist masterpiece. But those who’ve followed Smith long enough weren’t surprised by a brutal error. It wasn’t even the only blunder Smith had Thursday night. He also allowed Steph Curry the wide-open look from deep to conclude the first half, all because of an ill-advised gamble he had little chance of capitalizing on.
Smith has cost his team before by not knowing the score and situation during the late stages of a game. Back in 2014, as a member of the New York Knicks, Smith launched a wide-open 3-pointer in the closing stages of a game after New York grabbed an offensive rebound when it would have made more sense to simply hold the ball (ironic, in light of Game 1). He missed, the Rockets got the rebound, and Houston went on to win.
We’ve written before at FiveThirtyEight about Smith and how he frequently aces the tougher tasks in basketball but often flubs the ones that seem relatively effortless. We certainly don’t know that Smith would have made such a shot — he somehow went 0-for-5 on putbacks during the regular season, which was second-worst in the NBA,1 according to Synergy Sports Technology — especially while shooting over Kevin Durant, whose go-go-gadget arms made him one of the best shot blockers this past season.
Before we bludgeon Smith and the Cavs too much for not finishing the job, though, it is worth circling back to the enormous call reversal — when officials initially called Durant for a charge before reviewing the play on video, overturning the decision and hitting James with a blocking foul. It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of the call. Before that play, Cleveland — with a 104-102 lead — held an approximately 75 percent chance of winning, according to Inpredictable.
And it’s worth pointing out, as Cavs coach Tyronn Lue did, that such plays are very rarely reviewed, perhaps explaining why so few fans understood that it could be looked over on replay. As far as we can tell from The Pudding’s raw “Last Two Minute” report data, the NBA has reviewed 32 block/charge calls near the restricted area in the waning moments of a close game since March 2015. Just nine were overturned. (Lue was particularly upset because he didn’t think anything about the play should have been reviewable, given that James was clearly outside the restricted area.)
Beyond the strange call and the Smith gaffe in the final minute, there were other reasons that Cleveland needed to take this game. First, and perhaps most importantly, the heavily maligned Cavs bench wasn’t horrible on Thursday night. In fact, it outscored Golden State by 3 points during the five minutes that James took a breather — an eye-opening stat that we may not see repeated during the series, given the history between these clubs.
It was also noteworthy that the Warriors nearly dropped this game despite taking care of the ball as well as they did. Golden State, known for its high degree of carelessness at times, turned the ball over only seven times Thursday, one of its lowest totals all season. That almost always results in a victory for the Warriors, who’ve been nearly perfect (37-3 in regular season and playoffs) since the start of the 2014-15 season when giving it away nine times or fewer.
Cleveland got an absolute dream performance out of James. The Cavs had a go-ahead free-throw attempt from a good free-throw shooter with less than five seconds left on the clock. And they even came up with an offensive rebound — one of 19 they’d grab on the night — at near-point blank range in that same five-second window. It doesn’t get any better than that.
No one knows what might have happened had it played out a little differently. But given the perceived gap between these teams — and how close James and the Cavs were to pulling off the shocker — it sure felt like Cleveland needed to shut the door when it had the opportunity to.
Neil Paine contributed research.
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CORRECTION (June 1, 2018, 10:50 a.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly described the time period over which the NBA reviewed 32 block/charge calls near the restricted area in the waning moments of close games. Those 32 reviews have occurred since March 2015, not just this season.