NBA Finals 2018: Warriors' continued late fourth-quarter struggles nearly cost them Game 1 vs. Cavs

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Thank goodness for J.R. Smith.

Well, perhaps more accurately, thank goodness for J.R. Smith and George Hill. Hill's missed free throw and Smith's bizarre decision to dribble the ball back out to halfcourt after securing the offensive rebound in the paint on the final possession of regulation gave the Warriors new life. In overtime the Cavaliers were clearly demoralized, out of gas, mentally spent -- whatever you want to call it -- and Golden State came away with a 124-114 win in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night.

The late mistakes from the Cavs buried what would have been the story if they had finished the job: The Warriors have been terrible in crunch time this postseason.

Golden State hasn't played in many close games during their 2018 playoff run, but when it has come down to the wire, they've been downright awful. Entering Thursday's game, the Warriors were 2-3 this postseason in games within five points with less than five minutes left in the fourth quarter and overtime, including 0-2 in their seven-game conference finals series against the Rockets. The advanced stats back up what we saw on the court in those games -- the Warriors just couldn't score. Their postseason clutch offensive rating of 77.9 was the second worst in the entire NBA. It was 71.9 in their two losses to Houston.

The Cavs, by contrast, entered Thursday's game with a 7-1 record and a league-leading net rating of 36.8 in the clutch this postseason.

Late in Game 1 the Golden State offense was awful, but it wasn't exactly free-flowing -- that's the nature of crunch time possessions. They got great individual effort from Stephen Curry, who made two clutch layups, including an and-one with 23 seconds left. However, if a charge call against Kevin Durant with 36 seconds left in the fourth wasn't overturned after replay review, the Cavs would have had the ball, up two, with Cleveland and LeBron James in the driver's seat. It was a pivotal moment in the game, and prevented what would have been an extremely tight final possession for Golden State.

"I thought I read that play just as well as I've read any play in my career, defensively," James said after the game. "I seen the drive, I was outside the charge line, I stepped in, took the contact. It's a huge play. It's a huge play."

More concerning for the Warriors on Thursday was their crunch time defense, or lack thereof. A Curry 3-pointer put the Warriors up 100-96 with 4:39 remaining -- a shot that looked like the knockout blow to a Cavs team on the ropes. Instead Cleveland, particularly LeBron, continued to score, and score, and score. James scored nine points and was 4-of-4 from the field in the final four minutes of the fourth quarter -- meanwhile, the Warriors were 2-of-6 (including 0-for-2 from Durant) and were outscored 13-7 over that stretch. Hill's missed free throw and Smith's blunder were the only things that could stop the bleeding.  

Look, it's not easy to stop LeBron James with the game on the line, but the Warriors cannot survive if they allow any team, let alone the Cavs, to continue to get to the basket at will in the final minutes. For what it's worth, they put the clamps on LeBron, who scored a Finals career-high 51 points in Game 1, during the overtime period by allowing him to score just two points. He was surely tired, but it underscores how feeble the Golden State resistance was at the end of the fourth. They'll need to get better in that department, since, though Cleveland might have blown its best chance to steal a win at Oracle, the ensuing games are also likely to be close and tough.

"I know everybody has been saying and writing that it's going to be easy. It's not going to be easy," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the game. "We're playing a great team. They've been to the Finals four years in a row, just like we have, for a reason."

Sure enough, the Cavs played looser and freer than they have all playoffs (Toronto massacre excluded), and their mindset as extreme underdogs likely had a lot to do with it. They had no problems putting the ball in the basket, an area in which they've struggled all postseason, and they were an overturned call, a missed free throw and an unimaginable mistake away from snatching home-court advantage from the Warriors.

Game 1 sent a clear message to Cleveland: Keep the game close, and LeBron will take us home. It sent an equally clear message to the Warriors: If execution down the stretch doesn't improve, this could be a long series.

"A win is a win. If we would've won by 30 or won in overtime or at the end of regulation, it does not matter," Warriors guard Klay Thompson said after the game. "We have a chance to go 2-0 on Sunday. You can look at it as catching a break, but at this point in the year breaks are more than welcome."

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