An overtime game. A 51-point performance by LeBron James. A scuffle. An overturned, disputed call.
There was a lot going on in Game 1 of the NBA finals on Thursday night, as the Golden State Warriors defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 124-114 in overtime. But there’s a good chance that what will be remembered for a long time is a player who did not seem to know the score.
The Cavaliers, 12½ point underdogs on the road, led by 11 early on with James showing his greatest-of-all-time form (his 51 points were a career high in a playoff game, and he had eight rebounds and eight assists).
By halftime, though, it was tied, and the result hung in the balance as time ticked away in regulation.
The Cavaliers seemed to catch a break when Kevin Durant was called for a charge on James, but it was overturned on review (“it’s never been done, ever, in the history of the game,” Cavaliers Coach Tyronn Lue contended).
Cleveland trailed by 1 with 4.5 seconds left in the game when Cavaliers guard George Hill went to the line. He made the first and missed the second. Tie game.
In an athletic play that certainly would be lauded had things turned out differently, J.R. Smith snagged a one-handed rebound. He was just feet from the basket, perhaps a shot away from a win. But inexplicably, he dribbled away, and dribbled some more and kept on dribbling far past the 3-point arc. No shot, no pass to James wide open at the top of the key. Finally, perhaps realizing his mistake, Smith passed the ball to Hill in the corner, but time expired before he could get a shot off.
James, with a look of exasperation for the ages, seemed to be pointing in the direction of the basket as the incident played out. His emphatic arms-out gesture at Smith after time expired quickly became the most posted and copied image from the game.
Coach Lue said after the game that Smith thought his team was ahead: “He thought we were up one.”
But Smith said he knew the game was tied: “I was trying to get enough space to bring it out to maybe get a shot off. I looked over at LeBron, and it looked like he was trying to call timeout, so I just stopped.”
“No, I knew it was tied,” he said, noting that big Kevin Durant was right by him after the rebound. “I’m pretty sure everybody didn’t think I was going to shoot it over K.D. right there.”
Smith said that if he had thought his team was ahead, as many suggested, he would have acted differently. “If I thought we were ahead, then I would have just held onto the ball and let them foul me,” Smith said. “So, clearly that wasn’t the case.”
James, and a good number of fans, did not seem to buy this explanation.
Asked about the play, James said, “I don’t know what J.R. was thinking,” then walked out of a news conference when pressed.
Other N.B.A. players, watching from afar, were quick to weigh in on Smith’s gaffe.
There was still time in the game for trouble in overtime. Tristan Thompson of the Cavaliers was called for a flagrant foul on Shaun Livingston. He was ejected, then shoved the ball in Draymond Green’s face. Coach Lue said Thompson was upset that Livingston had taken a shot with the game already decided.
Smith, 32, is an N.B.A. veteran of four teams (plus a stint with the Zhejiang Golden Bulls in China). He has had a knack for making news: a 10-game suspension as a Denver Nugget in 2006 for his part in an on-court brawl with the Knicks; a suspension as a Nugget for an incident in a nightclub; and again as a Knick for a drug violation; and yet another as a Cavalier in the 2015 playoffs for an elbowing incident. He is also known for his tattoos, which cover a good chunk of his body.
Smith holds the N.B.A. record for most 3-point shots in a game, 22, in 2014 (he made 10). But the shot he did not take on Thursday may overshadow every one of those.