The 2018 NBA Finals got off to one hell of a start with the Warriors’ overtime win against the Cavaliers. The game was full of eye-popping moments from nearly the opening tip (with Klay Thompson’s scary but inconsequential injury) to the final seconds, irrelevant but for a Flagrant 2 and minor fracas between Tristan Thompson and (who else?) Draymond Green.
But it was what happened late in regulation that decided this game. And it was really bad for the Cavaliers.
Cleveland knows it should have won this game. LeBron James was otherworldly with 51 points on efficient shooting. Kevin Durant was kept in check. The Cavaliers feasted on the glass and defended reasonably well. They scored well, too. They withstood the traditional third quarter Warriors run and played smart through much of the fourth. But five moments cost them the game in regulation.
We ranked those five moments by magnitude of cruelty.
5. George Hill’s missed free throw
With about five seconds left and the Cavaliers down one, James tried to hit George Hill on a sweet backdoor cut for the win. Klay Thompson hooked Hill on the cut and was whistled for the foul, sending the veteran Hill to the line with a chance to win the game for Cleveland.
An 80 percent free-throw shooter, Hill hit the first and missed the second.
It happens. Hill is not the first player to miss a critical crunch time free throw in the waning seconds of a high-intensity game, and he won’t be the last. It happens. But how sweet it would have been for Hill to put the Cavaliers up there, especially after spending half the year wasting time in Sacramento and having such an up-and-down postseason so far. Capping off a win in his first ever Finals game would have been such a boost.
But misses happen. Pressure is real, and even if it’s not, misses happen. An 80 percent shooter misses two out of 10 shots from the line. Splitting a pair at the line is possible, even for good shooters.
Damn is it cruel, though. That’s a shot Hill will think about the rest of his life. A bunch of Cavaliers fans would too, if not for what happened immediately after the miss.
4. Kevin Love’s foul on Stephen Curry
The game was so unbelievably bonkers that this gaffe isn’t getting mentioned much at all. This is actually the play that put Hill in a position to need to hit both on the ensuing possession.
With Cleveland up two with 31 seconds left, Golden State had a narrow two-for-one opportunity. Stephen Curry didn’t quite pull it off in time, but he did slide loose to get downhill toward the rim for a layup. Rotating late, Kevin Love compounded the situation by fouling Curry hard enough to draw an obvious whistle, but not hard enough to prevent the layup. The result? A three-point play for Curry with 23 seconds left on the clock.
That put the Warriors up one and certainly colored what the Cavaliers did next. If the possession had played out as it eventually did with a tie game, Hill’s first free throw puts Cleveland up one, and what happens after his miss seals the victory.
No cheap shooting fouls up two with seconds to go! Don’t compound the problem of bad help defense by granting the Warriors a 90 percent shot at the go-ahead point!
3. The referees’ block/charge replay blunder
Offensive foul or nah? You make the call pic.twitter.com/8szyxhq6Fw— gifdsports (@gifdsports) June 1, 2018
With 36 seconds to go, the referees called a charge on Kevin Durant, who had barreled into James in the lane. But then the officials reviewed it and eventually reversed, calling a blocking foul on James and giving Durant two free throws. He sunk both, tying the game at 104.
On deep review, on a highly subjective and debatable type of play, this sentiment seemed to win out.
They got the call right, obviously was still moving into KD. It was the fair result. If getting the call right isn't your concern, I'm really not interested in your argument https://t.co/6WPNEiBHDm— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) June 1, 2018
Here’s the thing: the call itself is totally subjective. No less an authority than Steve Javie told the world on the ABC broadcast that it was a charge as officials were reviewing the footage. If Javie thinks it was a charge, it’s not “obvious” they got the call right in the end. If it were obvious, a long-time, well-respected official would have come to the same conclusion as the officials did after watching the slow-motion replay!
So let’s put to bed this idea that on subjective calls like charges, personal fouls, and other violations that whatever the officials come up with is obviously correct. There’s nothing obvious about subjective calls.
But this is even worse than all that, because the only trigger to actually review a charge/block foul in the last two minutes is if there is a question as to whether the defender was in the restricted area. Look at where James’ feet are when contact is made.
James’ feet (white shoes) are a foot outside the restricted area! It’s not close. There is no question — in real-time, in slow-motion, double speed — that James is outside the restricted area. Whether it’s a block or charge? That’s totally in question at every speed and from every angle. Whether he’s in the restricted area? Nope, nope, nope. He’s not.
Yet the officials reviewed the play on that basis, leading to the overturned call.
You can argue that it shouldn’t matter because the officials got the call right in the end. But that’s not how the rules work. This play should never have been reviewed under NBA rules. If you review that to see if his foot is on the line you’d better start reviewing every crunch-time baseline drive or corner three, or hell, three-pointer that isn’t from Curryland period.
The officials messed this up.
2. J.R. Smith’s blunder
As I wrote in Good Morning It’s Basketball, Smith is a known quantity. Spencer Hall framed this extremely well in his piece. Having Smith on your team requires that you keep him abreast of the situation and plan at all times. You don’t need to yell out “Rebound and timeout if he misses!” if you don’t want to psych out George Hill. But maybe whisper it into his ear, you know?
But, oof, this is The Most J.R. Smith Play Ever, and it will haunt him for all of his days ... unless the Cavaliers win the series. Good luck.
1. No Cavaliers calling a timeout amid said blunder
All that said, and yes, I am feeling quite defensive in Smith’s honor for some bizarre reason. Where the hell were the other Cavaliers?
James doesn’t try to call a timeout until the clock expires. Tyronn Lue isn’t on the sideline screaming for a timeout. Everyone is just sort of ... watching Smith frolic around with the ball as the clock winds to zero. James is calling for a pass with some urgency when he should be calling timeout!
Sure, you expect your teammates or players, who are in the NBA, to have the situational awareness to know what do with the ball in a tie game with four seconds left. But you also know your teammate or player is Smith. You know this! Be prepared.
Smith deserves to be the goat here for not knowing the score, for sure. But that doesn’t absolve the others from responsibility for stepping in to correct the situation.