Published On: Fri, Jun 1st, 2018

On LeBron, and the one that got away from the Cavs

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OAKLAND, Calif. – In a postseason full of masterpieces, LeBron James delivered his most impressive performance yet in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

And thanks to a controversial overturned call and a bone-headed gaffe by one of his teammates, James had to settle for a series-opening loss to the Golden State Warriors that came oh-so-close to being a stunning Cleveland win.

Few are giving the Cavaliers a chance to even win a game in the series. Yet James scored a playoff career-high 51 points, becoming the sixth player in NBA history to record 50-plus points in a Finals game, and the first since Michael Jordan in 1993.

The Cavaliers were positioned to win their first Finals game at Oracle Arena since James led them to the championship in 2016. If that game will be remembered forever for the block on Andre Iguodala, Game 1 on Thursday will be etched into memories because of two plays at the end of regulation that changed the course of the game, and possibly the series – and perhaps even James’ future in Cleveland.

With under a minute left in the fourth quarter and the Cavaliers leading by two, James stood his ground against Kevin Durant outside the restricted area as the Warriors forward drove to the basket and was called for an offensive foul. The Cavs regained possession, up two, with a chance to put the game away.

That is until the referees decided to exercise their discretion and review the play, overturning the call and awarding two free throws to Durant, who made them to tie the game. In the post-game referee pool report, officials Ken Mauer and Tony Brothers explained the review occurred because there was doubt about whether James was in the restricted area.

Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue disputed the call and was visibly upset.

“LeBron was clearly four feet outside the restricted area,” Lue said after the game. “So it doesn’t make sense to review something if he’s on the line or if he’s close to the charge circle, and that’s the review. He wasn’t close … To do what he did and come out robbed, it’s just not right.”

James was more restrained but still made his thoughts clear.

“I read that play just as well as I’ve read any play in my career, maybe in my life,” James said. “I seen the play happening. I knew I was outside the charge line, and I knew I took the hit.”

Even with the call, the Cavaliers had another chance to win the game with 4.7 seconds left trailing by one. After James made a brilliant pass to George Hill cutting to the basket, the Cavs guard went to the free throw line with a chance to give Cleveland the lead back. Hill hit his first free throw to tie the game, then missed the second.

(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

J.R. Smith grabbed the offensive rebound after Hill’s miss. Instead of going back up for a potential game-winning layup, or attempting any kind of shot, he dribbled the ball out to the free throw line and watched the clock expire as James shouted at him. Smith appeared to tell James he thought the Cavaliers were leading by one immediately after.

The Warriors’ offense dominated in overtime, and Golden State went on to win 124-114. What exactly was going through Smith’s head on the final play became a matter of debate.

“He thought it was over,” Lue said. “He thought we were up one.”

That seemed like the logical explanation, except Smith offered up his version of the truth.

“I knew it was tied,” he said. “I thought we were going to take a timeout because I got the rebound … If I thought we were ahead, I would have just held onto the ball and let them foul me.”

James was prodded by a reporter for his perspective.

“I don’t know his state of mind,” he said before walking off the podium, clearly annoyed.

James made two incredible plays – drawing a charge on Durant, and finding Hill on a cut to the basket – that highlighted a spectacular night. But the only mic drop he had after the game came thanks to the final play of regulation that will live in infamy.

“I don’t give up on any of my players, any of my teammates,” James said.

Even so, it was hard to mask the frustration of this defeat. Was it his most frustrating loss ever?

“Because it’s right now, I would say yeah,” James said. “I always live in the present. I don’t know how frustrated I was after a loss in the past. I think we played as well as … we played as well as we’ve played all postseason, and we gave ourselves a chance possession after possession after possession. There were just some plays that were kind of taken away from us. Simple as that.”

On an evening when he produced one of the greatest individual playoff performances, James left the arena with just one stat that will matter: He became the first player in Finals history to score 50-plus points and lose a game.

That might haunt him, and the Cavaliers, for a very long time.

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