OAKLAND, Calif. — LeBron James defied belief with another brilliant playoff performance and was in utter disbelief at the officials and a play by teammate J.R. Smith down the stretch that sent the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 124-114 overtime loss to Golden State in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night.
James posted the first 50-point game in the finals since Michael Jordan did it 25 years ago and had the Cavaliers in position to stun the heavily favored Warriors in the opener before a disputed replay overturn and Smith’s blunder turned the tide in Golden State’s favor.
“Tonight we played as well as we’ve played all postseason, and we gave ourselves a chance possession after possession after possession,” James said. “There were just some plays that were kind of taken away from us. Simple as that.”
James finished with 51 points in the highest scoring finals game in a losing effort and had the Cavaliers in position to win when his pass down low to George Hill drew a foul on Klay Thompson with 4.6 seconds left and Cleveland trailing 107-106. Hill hit the first shot to tie the game but missed the second.
Smith secured the rebound but dribbled to half court, a play usually made with the lead. James was calling for the ball that entire time and could only hold his arms out in shock before walking back to the huddle for overtime.
While coach Tyronn Lue said Smith thought the Cavs were up by a point, Smith insisted he knew the score.
“I knew it was tied,” he said. “I thought we were going to take a timeout because I got the rebound. I’m pretty sure everybody didn’t think I was going to shoot it over KD right there. ... I tried to bring it out and get enough space to maybe get a shot off. I looked over at LeBron and he looked like he was trying to get a timeout. So I stopped, and the game was over.”
James said he didn’t know what Smith was thinking and walked out of the postgame news conference after growing tired of repeated questioning about whether Smith knew the score.
“I don’t know what J.R. was thinking,” James said, refusing to speculate on Smith’s thought process. “I don’t know the question you’re trying to ask.”
The Cavaliers were not able to recover from Smith’s blunder.
The Warriors scored on their first possession of overtime when Durant drew a foul from Hill that upset James once again and never looked back, outscoring Cleveland 17-7 in the extra session.
The game ended with James jawing with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and then teammate Tristan Thompson getting ejected for a flagrant foul after he got upset when Shaun Livingston attempted a shot when the game was already in hand instead of taking a shot-clock violation.
There were several calls down the stretch that angered James, with the biggest coming after James drove past Stephen Curry for a three-point play that put Cleveland up 104-102 with 50 seconds left.
James appeared to draw a charge on Durant. But officials went to the replay to see if James was in the restricted area which would make it a block. While James was clearly outside the restricted area, officials also had the chance to review whether James was in legal guarding position and changed the call to a block.
“I thought I read that play just as well as I read any play in my career, defensively,” James said. “I saw the drive, I was outside the charge line, I stepped in, took the contact. It’s a huge play. It’s a huge play.”
James answered with an impressive drive, changing hands in midair before scoring to give the Cavs the lead. But it wasn’t enough when Curry answered with a three-point play followed by Smith’s miscue.
The opener of the fourth straight finals between these teams followed a familiar script with the deeper Warriors overcoming a sensational individually effort by James the way they did in winning the past two titles.
James had his highest-scoring playoff game ever, tied Jerry West for the most 40-point games in a single postseason with eight and almost single-handedly led the Cavs to the win.
He made 19 of 32 shots, added eight rebounds and eight assists and played nearly 48 minutes for a third straight game.
But the lasting image of this game will be of James calling for the ball behind the 3-point line as Smith dribbled out the clock in a play reminiscent of one made by Dallas’ Derek Harper in a playoff loss to the Lakers 34 years ago.
“It was epic,” Lue said “He did enough to carry this team to a victory. We just came up short. But this is LeBron James, that’s who he is. 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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