OAKLAND — So tell me again how year four of the Cavaliers vs. Warriors is bad for basketball…
Overtime. LeBron James scoring 51 and looking every bit the best player of the world. Still. At age 33. Stephen Curry draining 38-foot threes on the way to 29 points. Controversy in the final minute of regulation with a reversed blocking call on LeBron (one that seemed to get in the Cavaliers’ heads). Then George Hill missing the potential game-winning free throw — and J.R. Smith gets the offensive rebound in a tie game with 4.7 seconds left and doesn’t shoot or pass to the wide-open LeBron and instead tries to dribble out the clock. It was a play that left everyone baffled.
“He thought we were up one,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said of Smith after the game.
Smith was selling something different.
This game had everything a fan can want — drama, big shots, controversy, back-and-forth play — and it wasn’t even over yet after the moment Smith will never get to live down. There were five more minutes of free basketball in overtime.
The Warriors dominated overtime — going 3-of-3 from three and scoring 17 points on just eight possessions. Golden State went on to win 124-114, taking a 1-0 series lead in dramatic fashion.
The action wasn’t even over in the final seconds of a decided game — Tristan Thompson picked up a Flagrant II foul and was ejected with 2.6 seconds left. He could get a fine or suspension for his actions and not leaving the floor “in a timely manner.”
It was a wild first night of the NBA Finals.
“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. “We’re playing a great team. They’ve been to The Finals four years in a row, just like we have, for a reason. They have a guy who is playing basketball at a level that I’m not sure anybody’s ever seen before, when you consider everything he’s doing.”
The strange ending and loss should not overshadow LeBron’s effort. He said after Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals he thinks of Game 1s as “feel out games.”
If this was just a feel out game…..
Of course, you don’t have to feel out an opponent you have seen in NBA Finals four consecutive years, LeBron knew exactly where he wanted to attack — get the switch and go at Kevon Looney or Stephen Curry in isolation. And if that doesn’t work, hit a step-back three. He did all of that and more.
LeBron was feeling confident from the moment he walked into the arena wearing a suit and shorts.
The Warriors were not dialed in defensively to start the game, giving up good looks — open threes, good looks on cuts to the rim, and the Cavaliers had seven offensive rebounds (35 percent of their missed shots) and they hung tight.
Mostly they hung because of LeBron — he was brilliant, scoring 24 points on 11 shots in the first half (and pitching in four assists, which should have been more if Jordan Clarkson could have hit anything). LeBron was a surgeon in the first half, carving the Warriors up, and at one point pushing Cleveland’s lead to 11 in the second quarter.
But after this very Curry three to end the half, it was 56-56 at the break.
The Warriors got a serious scare in the first quarter. J.R. Smith was closing out on Klay Thompson near the arc and slipped on a wet spot on the floor, and fell into Thompson’s knee. It was ugly.
Thompson limped back to the locker room, but was diagnosed as a left lateral leg contusion and he returned in the second quarter. He finished with 24 points and had five threes.
Golden State started the second half on 10-3 run, and it wasn’t only because JaVale McGee started in place of Kevon Looney. (Although McGee’s missed dunk was the levity the night needed). The Warriors played better defense and turned that into transition chances.
But the Cavaliers and LeBron would not go away. They did not fade. After a couple of LeBron James threes it was back to a tie (68-68). Warriors lead by six after the third, the Cavaliers had withstood the Warriors third-quarter punch, at least better than most.
It set up a fourth for the ages — and it set up a potentially exciting series. Game 1 lived up to the hype.