The Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers could have been a rivalry similar to the Celtics/Lakers rivalry of the 1980s. However, in 4.7 seconds during the 2018 NBA Finals, the hopes that these two franchises would become anything more than the Jazz/Bulls rivalry of the late 1990s faded away.
The Cavaliers and Warriors An Epic One-Sided Rivalry
The first time the Cleveland Cavaliers met the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals was 2015, LeBron James’ first season back in Cleveland after he took his talents to South Beach. LeBron, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love took on a surging Warriors team led by 2014-15 NBA MVP Steph Curry. Curry’s Warriors, coached by Steve Kerr in his first year with Golden State, are the ones you remember from their dynasty days. Andre Iguodala was the only Warriors starter over 27, as Curry was flanked by Iguodala, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green.
The Warriors took the 2015 Finals in six games as they began to look like a dynasty. Their 2015-26 was the greatest regular season in NBA history, but they still needed a championship to overtake the Jordan Bulls who held the previous regular-season record, but then went on to win it all. And there was Cleveland waiting for them in the Finals.
The 2016 NBA Finals were the best in recent memory with insane moments like LeBron’s soul-crushing block and most importantly, Kyrie Irving’s dagger in Game 7 to seal the Cavaliers’ victory, the first in the franchise’s history.
If you’re wondering if the Warriors got their revenge the following year, you’d be correct. The Warriors won the first three games of the 2017 Finals, graciously allowing Cleveland to win Game 4 to avoid the sweep. The Warriors would put the finishing touches on their Championship season in Game 5. If we’re following the pattern, that would mean that the Cavaliers should take the Larry O’Brien by to Cleveland in 2018, right?
J.R. Smith’s 2018 NBA Finals Game 1 Goof
Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals was the chance. The opportunity to take down the mighty Golden State Warriors in their own building. The Cleveland Cavaliers were nearly there.
Golden State led 107-106 with 4.7 seconds to go in the fourth quarter. Cavs guard George Hill stepped to the free-throw line for two shots. He nailed the first one. Excitement swelled; could Cleveland really pull this off?
Hill left the second shot short, but J.R. Smith grabbed the offensive rebound. The hoop must’ve eaten shellfish for lunch or something because Smith bolted the other way towards half-court. By the time he realized the clock, LeBron James hectically signaled to Hill in the corner. Smith threw the pass while James frantically attempted to call a timeout, but the refs didn’t see him. Hill’s desperation three missed the mark and wasn’t released in time.
Oracle Arena welcomed the extra five minutes. The Cavs were deflated. The chance to dethrone the latest NBA dynasty gone in the wind.
The game and series could’ve been called at the end of regulation. The Cavs played their guts out, but the colossal shift in momentum was too big a mountain to climb. Curry, Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond spirited Golden State to a 124-114 win.
Smith’s gaffe was on everyone’s mind.
What was he thinking? According to ESPN’s deep dive inside the sequence, Smith and Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue have different answers.
In his postgame interview, Ty Lue said that Smith thought they were up by one. Smith, swarmed by the media after the game, said he knew they were tied and was creating space to get a clean look or call a timeout.
Salt in the wound.
James, a four-time NBA MVP, put on a stellar performance. He scored 51 points on 19-of-32 shooting, snagged 8 rebounds, and dished 8 assists.
The Timeout Aftermath
The Warriors would win the next three games, sweeping the Cavaliers and cementing themselves as the new dynasty in the league.
Smith wanted a chance at redemption. After sitting out last season, the former New Orleans Hornets, Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks shooting guard was signed by the Los Angeles Lakers as a substitute player for the league’s restart in Orlando. Smith teamed up with James to embark on another deep NBA Playoffs run. After a three-month layoff because of the coronavirus, the Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks were the top contenders, and the Lakers ended up coming out on top.
J.R. Smith may have gotten his redemption for that timeout by helping LeBron bring a title to Los Angeles. But NBA Fans will never forget his legendary brain fart.