Looking back at J.R. Smith‘s decision at the end of Game One

J.R. Smith
J.R. Smith’s decision at the end of Game One hurt the Cavs.

The Golden State Warriors are now just 3 games away from repeating as NBA Champions. This comes as no surprise whatsoever to most of us, myself included. After all, Golden State finished top 5 league-wide in nearly every per-game team stat such as blocks (5th), steals (3rd), points (2nd), rebounds (2nd), assists (2nd), FG% (4th), 3P made (3rd) and FT% (3rd). Hindsight makes it quite easy to say we all saw it coming, but last night the hometown Warriors were pushed to the brink of letting their first home game of the series slip through the cracks.

Cleveland put together a masterful performance in the series’ kickoff game. From an energy and effort standpoint the Cavs showed up in a way we haven’t seen at all this season and they showed up at the perfect time despite coming up just short. Nearly everyone watching the game saw the frustrating sequence with 4.7 seconds remaining. JR Smith corralled an offensive rebound only to do everything in his power to let his meme-worthy reputation live on amongst NBA fans watching everywhere. After dribbling out nearly all 4 remaining seconds and forcing a bad pass to George Hill in the corner, Draymond Green blocked the only shot attempt Hill could get off after receiving the risky pass from Smith, which then sent the game to OT.

One player getting a major pass in the court of public opinion here is aforementioned Cavs PG George Hill. Hill was fouled by Klay Thompson while attempting to catch a pass with 4.7 seconds left. Though he wasn’t shooting, Hill would head to the line due to Golden State being over the foul limit. He knocked down the first free throw attempt but definitely appeared a bit tense and the shot was a bit flat, smashing its way in off the back-rim. Hill dribbled through his routine and released the second attempt. *clank* Had it been Steph Curry or Kevin Love who missed such a big free throw we would all be hearing about the monumental choke job on the line but instead, Hill isn’t fielding much blame at all for this crucial miss.

Sure his was an egregious play when you put it under the microscope of Golden State’s 124-114 victory but JR Smith is not to blame for the lapse in concentration by Cleveland all around. I’m not here to critique Ty Lue’s ability as a coach in the league either, but Ty Lue surely is more responsible than JR Smith for what happened on Thursday night.

Lue has recently gotten much credit in the national media for being an outstanding coach who is unfairly undermined by the presumption that since he’s coaching LeBron James, his job is easier. Even Chauncey Billups has lauded him highly suggesting he outperformed Brad Stevens in Cleveland’s 7 Game showdown with Boston. “It wasn’t tough for me,” said Billups when challenged by fellow analyst Paul Pierce. The two were going back and forth trying to find and analyze in-game adjustments in the series by Lue and Stevens.

Any great NBA coach knows that when that whistle blows and the ball is dead, you immediately must act accordingly, being sure your players are aware of the incurring situation in the game. How does Lue go unmentioned within the discussion of who cost Cleveland this game? I couldn’t begin to guess. A great coach would have each player aware of their role in the upcoming sequence following a missed or a made free throw but Smith was left to act on instinct which has failed him too many times in the past for Lue to leave it up to his judgment. Another mistake by Lue was his lack of communication with the in-game officials. Lue and even LeBron James knew that in the event of a missed free throw, Cleveland would want a timeout to reset and draw something up on offense for a chance to win the game on the final possession. So knowing this, why wouldn’t Lue inform the referees prior to the free throw attempt like we see great coaches and even average coaches do every night in the NBA? It baffles me truly. To make this worse, the Cleveland coach went as far as to blame the reversed charging call on Kevin Durant for his team’s loss stating that they “came up robbed”. Making excuses has never been a common trait among great NBA coaches and I don’t expect it to become one any time soon.

Now let’s get back to JR Smith. Smith hasn’t exactly been known throughout his career for being a high-IQ player in the league. Constant wonky, in-game antics such as untying opponents’ shoes, displacing opponents’ headbands, leaving the floor mid-play to greet an opponent on the bench have all been lowlights for Smith and have even reeled in a 2017 Shaqtin’ a Fool; Midseason Worst Moment Award for the unpredictable Cavs swingman. That being said, if Smith has such a reputation around the league for these moments, where are LeBron James and Ty Lue when Cleveland needs a leader the most? Right before Hill releases the second free throw you can see Smith signaling towards his coach with his hands as if he wasn’t fully understanding something regarding the plan moving forward. He almost unexpectedly grabbed the offensive board. We hear nearly every day about how LeBron is the star player, head coach, and GM of the Cavs while not technically speaking but if he garners such credit where is the blame for not having his players ready in the game’s biggest moments?

Aside from the utter dysfunction, we saw from Cleveland at the end of regulation, their unwavering effort from minute 1 to minute 48 earned them an opportunity to right all the wrongs in an overtime period. It didn’t go very well. Cleveland scored just 7 points and made just 2 field goals. In OT, James was 0-4 from the field and only managed to net a pair of free throws which was a major let-down following his dominant 49 point, 8 assist outing in regulation. Smith and Jeff Green were the only Cavs players to make field goals in the bonus period and Golden State was bombs away going 3-3 on 3PT attempts and a deadly accurate 5-6 from inside the arc.
You had to see this coming following the disengaging behavior of the entire Cavs bench as they caught their breath leading up to overtime.

The buzzer sounded and James turned a hard shoulder to Smith who then followed him to the bench while extending for half-hearted high (or low) fives. Every Cleveland player was struck with a look of dismay, arms spread, hands atop their heads questioning what the hell had just happened and who was to blame rather than moving on and equipping themselves for the OT battle. Cavs role player Larry Nance JR. had his shirt covering his face, Cedi Osman looked as if he’d seen a spectre, and LeBron James sat silently on the bench with a look of “I really need to do this all by myself” painted upon his disappointed face, avoiding even the slightest peek at JR Smith. It totally looked like the Cavs had checked out and the way that they played in OT surely supported that.

This really was anyone’s game heading into OT but it was clear the Cavs forfeited the mental war once the regulation horn sounded. The whole first half was a testament to Cleveland’s fight, the Cavs thwarted Golden State in the rebounding department 25-12 including 11 on the offensive end to the Warriors’ 0. Cleveland fielded a whopping 100% defensive rebound rating in the first half meaning they grabbed every possible defensive rebound that they had a chance at, pretty impressive work on the boards. It didn’t stop in the second half, Cleveland again reeled in 25 boards but Golden State wasn’t far off corralling 21. Cleveland even finished the game with a better offensive rating (111 to 109.9) but all the statistical advantages go out the window when your fight fades away and that is exactly what we saw in overtime of Game 1 for the LeBron-led Cavaliers.

Moving on to Game 2, expect the same grit and fight out of the Cavs. Cleveland has been doubted (yet still favored) in every series they’ve played thus far in these playoffs while winning some ugly games as well as a few beautiful ones. LeBron James holds himself to a different standard come Finals time and you’d be a fool to ignore that. Golden State dodged a major bullet in Game 1 and Game 2 may not be much different now that Andre Iguodala has been ruled doubtful with his lingering injury suffered in a knee to knee collision with James Harden in game 6 of the Western Conference Finals. Cleveland will need to once again take advantage of the Warriors sans Iguodala who won his only NBA Finals MVP award against the Cavs in 2016. The quick switch defense implored by Golden State hasn’t worked well for the likes of Steph Curry and Kevon Looney who were both consistently cooked by LeBron James in Game 1. You have to think having Iguodala would help with the defensive mismatches Cleveland was able to exploit but if the NBA Finals has taught me anything over the years it’s that you can have no skill as great as the luck of an eventual champion. Look for another bar fight on Sunday Night, but let’s hope the drunk behavior is left out this time (I’m talking to you, Mr. Smith).

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