Golden State Warriors v Cleveland Cavaliers

LeBron James' teammates let the Cavs' biggest chance slip away

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Cavs forward LeBron James in Game 1 of NBA Finals (Getty Images)

OAKLAND - LeBron James was incredible. His Cavaliers teammates had to leave him incredibly frustrated.

Sound familiar? It should. We've been here before, more than once in this postseason, scratching our heads pondering James' greatness while the other Cavaliers failed to show up.

And so the sliver of a margin that presented itself for Cleveland on Thursday night, the thin opening for James to shock into relevance what was expected to be a ho-hum Finals with his Game 1 brilliance - 51 points on 19-for-32 shooting from the field - fell away. It did so thanks to the lapses, more mental than physical, on the part of his team.

The final, in overtime, was 124-114, a double-digit Warriors win that fits the expectations most basketball folks had for this series, in which James' club was so clearly overmatched. But that's not the story of this game. This game was one the Cavaliers had in their grip, one Cleveland should have won if not for silly plays by the wine-and-gold, some terrible luck and a questionable use of instant replay late in the fourth quarter.

The lasting image of this game is not the hand-switching, Jordan-style layup by James to give his team a 106-104 lead with 32.1 seconds to play and set up a stunning, determined upset. No, the lasting image will be of James, standing near midcourt, shouting at Cavs guard JR Smith and imploring him with his sizable paws to throw a shot at the rim.

Smith had just lost track the score. At least, that was how it certainly looked. Smith's coach conceded that after the game.

"He thought it was over," Tyronn Lue said. "He thought we were up one."

Smith, however, claimed he was aware of the score, and that he did not immediately shoot because the long-limbed Kevin Durant was in his vicinity.

"Obviously, KD was right there," Smith said. "I tried to bring it out to give us more space to maybe get a shot off, then I looked over at 'Bron, and he looked like he wanted to call a timeout. So I just stopped and the game was over. I knew we were tied."

Here's how it unfolded: After Golden State's Klay Thompson was whistled for a takedown of George Hill on a cut toward the basket, Hill went to the free-throw line with 4.7 seconds left and the Cavs trailing by a point. Hill made the first three throw, tying the game at 107, but missed the second.

Smith got the rebound about seven feet from the basket and, rather than attacking with a shot, pulled the ball out past the 3-point line, Durant chasing furiously, thinking he had to prevent Smith from a good look at a game-winning shot. But Smith flung a pass to Hill, and Hill's shot was futilely blocked.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who was just a few feet from the play, also surmised that Smith thought the Cavs had the lead - and was counting his blessings that it unfolded that way.

"I was disappointed that we didn't get the rebound first, then, you know, we got lucky," Kerr said. "He could have taken a shot, but he dribbled out. I guess he thought they were ahead."

Judge for yourself, but keep an eye on James after the Smith rebound, and there's little indication he was looking for a timeout. James had his hands up ready for a pass from Smith. When that didn't come, he pointed ardently toward the basket.

Golden State's Draymond Green thought Smith was going for a pass to James.

"I would have looked for LeBron, too, I guess," Green said.

Durant was diplomatic about the situation.

"We've all done stuff like that on the basketball court," Durant said. "I can't talk about a guy - a situation that way, because I do some dumb stuff on the court... I don't know what was going through JR's head, but he made a great rebound and gave them the opportunity to win the basketball game."

That opportunity was contingent upon Smith actually shooting the ball, though. But all evidence suggests the Cavs' starting shooting guard was unaware of the score of Game 1 of the NBA Finals, with 4.7 seconds left in a tied game, and thought he could dribble out the clock for the win.

There was more, of course. Cavaliers center Tristan Thompson put himself at risk of a suspension with just two seconds left to play, going after Warriors guard Shaun Livingston with an ill-advised foul, which was ruled a flagrant-2.

The rules say Thompson should have left the court in a timely manner. Instead, he lingered long enough to be taunted by Warriors instigator Draymond Green, and shoved the ball into Green's face. The league office will take a close look at the play before deciding whether Thompson can play in Game 2.

"It is what it is," Green said after the game, smiling. "Life goes on. He got a flagrant-2 for the foul. We move forward and get ready for the next game."

There was also a bad break for the Cavs that can't be laid at the team's feet. With 36.4 seconds to play, Durant (who finished with 26 points, second on the team behind Curry's 29) was called for an offensive foul on a drive in which he ran into James just outside the restricted circle. James appeared to be sliding his feet when the collision happened, and referee Ken Mauer called for the play to be reviewed.

But the Cavs clung to the fact that Mauer called for the review based on the possibility that James had been in the restricted area. Once the replay process was begun, though, Mauer explained after the game that the refs determined James was, in fact, "not in a legal guarding position." The play was overturned. Durant made the two resulting free throws, moving Golden State into a 104-104 tie.

Lue was still irked by the call when he met with the media, and engaged in a good deal of hyperbole.

"It's bad," Lue said. "It's never been done before where you know he's outside the restricted and then you go down there and overturn the call and say it's a block. It's never been done, ever, in the history of the game. Then tonight, the Finals, the biggest stage, when our team played well, played our asses off, man it ain't right. It ain't right."

But in the end, what's not right here is that James once again gave a forceful, sweat-drenched, resolved showing, his eighth 40-point performance of this postseason for a band of teammates that continually disappoints. Because of it, there was a chance - and maybe that chance is still there, but it's slimmer now - that the Cavaliers could have pulled a stunning upset in this series.

Instead, the Cavs could not remember the score or keep their composure.

"This is LeBron James, that's who he is," Lue said. "That's why he's the best player in the world. He's been doing it for us all season. To do what he did tonight and come out robbed, it's just not right."

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