OAKLAND -- There were 4.7 seconds left on the clock – 4.7 seconds away from an upset that nobody predicted in Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals. On the back of a miraculous performance by LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers were tied with the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena, and George Hill was at the free-throw line with a shot to put them up by one.
The ball caromed off the front of the rim. It flew over the outstretched arms of Kevin Durant and into the arms of J.R. Smith. One would assume Smith would try for the quick putback. After all, nothing bad could come of that. A basket would put the Cavs up two with only a couple seconds remaining. A foul would put Smith, who is shooting 82.4 percent from the free-throw line this postseason, on the stripe. Worst comes to worst, Smith gets his shot blocked, and the game would go to overtime.
But then, inexplicably, NBA dynasties of all time, this golden opportunity instead headed to overtime, and in that overtime the Warriors would roll.. He dribbled past the free-throw line, past the three-point line, like a kindergartener running the bases backwards. Near halfcourt he approached LeBron, who pointed frantically back to the hoop. It was inexplicable: He was going the wrong way. The clock ran out on regulation. Instead of stealing a road game against one of the great
But moments after the buzzer sounded on regulation, television cameras caught Smith talking to James. His palms were facing the sky, either in supplication or in apology. It didn't take an accomplished lip reader to figure what Smith was saying: "I thought we were ahead."
Smith thought the game was over when the game was actually tied.
He forgot the score.
Over the course of 53 minutes of basketball on Thursday night, LeBron James painted another masterpiece, one of his finest. LeBron played all but five of those 53 minutes. He scored an incredible 51 points on 32 shots -- an NBA Finals record for a losing team. He made clutch threes. He made all but one free throw. He only turned the ball over five times, which is stunning considering how much the ball was in his hands. He played the type of game that could be cited as another piece of evidence in a debate a decade or two from now about why LeBron is in fact the greatest basketball player of all time.
Even Warriors coach Steve Kerr recognized LeBron's greatness: "They have a guy who is playing basketball at a level that I'm not sure anybody's ever seen before." This is from a man who was Michael Jordan's teammate in Chicago for four seasons in Chicago.
And once again, LeBron's all-time greatness -- LeBron's potential G.O.A.T. status -- was held back by circumstances surrounding him, and things that are out of his control.
How many times can we say this about LeBron's career? LeBron's greatness was held back during his first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers because of a desperately bad supporting cast. This stint with the Cavaliers has been held back because the Warriors' all-time great juggernaut appeared almost out of nowhere as soon as LeBron returned to Cleveland. And this season, which you could make a case has been the single-greatest individual season of LeBron's career, has been hurt by Kyrie Irving demanding a trade in the offseason, and by a supporting cast that's been, ahem, suboptimal.
Thursday night's Game 1 loss -- a historically painful, gut-wrenching overtime 124-114 loss -- was a distillation of all the surrounding forces that have conspired against LeBron chasing that G.O.A.T. status.
It wasn't just J.R. Smith's all-time bonehead move that stole defeat from the clutches of LeBron's victory, although that bonehead move certainly did rival Bill Buckner's World Series blunder in its utter ineptitude. There was plenty more that conspired against LeBron in Game 1 of the Finals. There was Tristan Thompson's emotional Flagrant 2 with Draymond Green in overtime, a moment that could potentially lead to a Finals suspension for Thompson and a further hamstring LeBron. Worst of all, there was officiating that was suspect all game and then .
The Cavs were up two. Kevin Durant was driving to the rim. LeBron slid over toward Durant, and their bodies crashed together. Refs called a charge on Durant. LeBron James, at the end of a brilliant basketball game, made one more brilliant basketball play to get in front of Durant, and that play made a Cavs victory seem just around the corner. But then officials went to the monitor to review the play. Very smart basketball minds disagree vehemently on what happened next: Should the referees even have been able to review that call? Or were the refs correct when they turned the Durant offensive foul into a LeBron blocking foul?
LeBron thought the call was ludicrous: "I thought I read that play just as well as I read any play in my career defensively… It's a huge play."
Afterward, Cavs coach Ty Lue said his team had been "robbed."
"It ain't right," he said. "It ain't right."
Even Kerr seemed to admit that his Warriors shouldn't have won.
"We got lucky," Kerr said.
The Cavaliers appeared more upset (at least more publicly upset) about that reversed foul call than about Smith's bonehead play, but it will be Smith's bonehead play that will be remembered from this game. It was perfectly symbolic for how LeBron has, again and again during his career, been able to carry an overmatched supporting cast almost to the finish line -- but not quite over it.
LeBron being LeBron, he refused to throw his teammate under the bus after the game. In the locker room, Smith offered up a nonsensical explanation that appeared at odds with what he told LeBron on the court and with what Lue said afterward about Smith not knowing the score.
"I knew we were tied -- I thought we were gonna call timeout," Smith said. "If I thought we were ahead, then I would have just held onto the ball -- so clearly that wasn't the case."
Green was incredulous at that explanation: "You gotta know the score. That's kind of basketball."
Basketball is unfair. Sports are unfair. Life is unfair. Greatness is not predetermined, and circumstances can get in the way of all-time greatness.
And on Thursday night in Oakland, that's what we saw, once again, for LeBron James: He had orchestrated an all-time great upset. And then the universe took it away from him.