- Somehow, even when LeBron James makes the right play, the basketball gods still find a way to punish him. Enter George Hill and J.R. Smith.
The summit was in sight. LeBron James had withstood 47 minutes and 50 seconds of Warriors basketball to hold Game 1 of the NBA Finals in the palm of his hand. The entire night had been his. James had rained jumpers indiscriminately over Golden State's many, switching defenders, even after being raked across the eye by Draymond Green. His moves had put Kevin Durant on his heels and Kevon Looney on his back. For this fateful possession, James hunted down Stephen Curry—his mismatch of choice for a great many reasons. The Cavaliers trailed by a single point, but could safely entrust their offense to a man who had already scored 49 of his own.
And it was then—with Curry on his hip and time waning—that James made an exceptional play of exceptional belief. It came to cost him the game, and with it his best chance at a competitive series.
Where so many superstars would have charted a course in isolation, James played with his head up. He saw George Hill flash to the rim and trusted the right play—one that forced an out-of-position Klay Thompson to take a reluctant foul. The story of Game 1 is a tale of faith. Unfortunately for James and the Cavs, it went punished. Hill would miss his second free throw, tying the game he could have ended. J.R. Smith then grabbed the rebound but lost his mind—effectively dribbling out the clock in regulation rather than attempt a shot to win. Cleveland went on to lose in overtime, 124-114, making James the first player in Finals history to score 51 points in a game he did not win.
According to Cavs head coach Tyronn Lue, Smith thought Cleveland was up by a point when he secured the rebound. Smith himself spoke to the contrary, claiming that he knew the score but believed a timeout to be coming. LeBron reacted emotionally in the moment but later dismissed the premise.
"We've got to move on," James said. "This game is over and done with. I would never give up on J.R. I never give up on any of my players, any of my teammates."
That trust can be painful. Were the basketball gods just, they would have rewarded James for the confidence he placed in Hill—for literally letting go of a possession he had every right to take. This was an all-time great performance against an all-time great opponent. James would end the night with 51 points on just 32 shots, a line made fuller by his eight rebounds and eight assists. Creating a quality look against Curry would have been easy. Passing to Hill—with those stakes and in that moment—was hard.
Still LeBron made the play, and he made it flawlessly. Hill is an 80% career free throw shooter. His miss was an improbability—the kind of result that sullies good process. So it went for Cleveland throughout Game 1. The Cavs had the right approach for this matchup, but bungled a few too many of their defensive exchanges. James funneled the offense toward open shooters, but the non-LeBron Cavs went 7-of-30 (23%) from beyond the arc. The butterfly effects of even a single make in those 23 misses could have been enormous.
Instead, James could only watch as his historic efforts fell away with every one of Smith's oblivious dribbles. They then shared the floor together for every relevant second of overtime, because the Cavs don't have many functional alternatives at their disposal. Smith has to play—even on a night when Golden State outscored Cleveland by 20 points with him on the floor.
This is the contender that LeBron props up. Cleveland's second-best player (Kevin Love) had to be pulled in the fourth quarter on account of his defensive liability. The team's third-best player missed a game-winning free throw. Hill is the most reliable of all the Cavs' guards, and even he couldn't finish out Game 1 without actively participating in Cleveland's demise.
Yet if given the chance in Game 2, James would likely make the same play again. He is Sisyphus with court vision, his belief a boulder. How disheartening it must be to watch Curry trust Green to advance the ball in transition, and then Green to drive into the defense for the sole purpose of setting up Thompson for a corner three. To see not only the right play, but one with the poise on both sides to ensure the right result.