OAKLAND — LeBron James was already off the court and down the tunnel by the time the yellow confetti fluttered down from the rafters after the Golden State Warriors’ 124-114 win in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night.
The Warriors had just outscored the Cleveland Cavaliers 17-7 in overtime to secure the win, and mute what was a historic effort in defeat for James, their longtime nemesis.
Moments earlier, James had become the first player to score 50 points — he ended with 51 — and lose in the Finals. The game might not have even reached overtime if not for a couple of stunning developments in the last 36.4 seconds of the fourth quarter.
“We got lucky,” said head coach Steve Kerr. “We got lucky.”
With the Warriors trailing 104-102, Durant went careening into the lane, where he barged into James. After the initial call, the referees went to the review monitors and ultimately changed the call, assessing a blocking foul on James.
“I thought I read that play just as well as I read any play in my career, defensively,” James said. “I’ve seen the drive. I was outside the charge line, I stepped in, took the contact. It’s a huge play. It’s a huge play.”
Cavs head coach Tyron Lue was seething when asked about the overturned decision which lead to a pair of free throws for Durant.
“It’s never been done, ever, in the history of the game,” Lue said. “And then tonight in the Finals on the biggest stage, when our team played our asses off. Man, it ain’t right. It ain’t right.”
The second stroke of luck for the Warriors came with just 4.7 seconds to go in regulation. Klay Thompson fouled George Hill with Cleveland down 107-106. Hill sank the first free throw before missing the second. Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith grabbed the rebound but then proceeded to dribble away from the hoop and toward half court. James raised both arms and exhorted Smith to pass the ball, but Cleveland didn’t attempt a shot, and the game headed to overtime.
Afterward, Smith told reporters in the locker room that he knew the score was tied, and thought James was trying to get a timeout. Lue contradicted that account at the podium.
“He thought it was over,” Lue said. “He thought we were up one.”
The Warriors weren’t ready to crush Smith for his blunder.
“Sometimes this stuff happens,” Kerr said. “It’s just, you know, we got lucky. We got lucky.”
“I mean, anything can happen on the basketball court, you know?” Durant said. “We’ve all done stuff like that on the basketball court. I can’t talk about a situation that way because I do some dumb stuff on the court. So I can’t really talk about that.”
Draymond Green addressed the situation with levity.
“I thought he was looking for LeBron,” Green said with a laugh. “I would have looked for LeBron too.”
Outside of James’s 51-point performance on 19-of-32 shooting, the rest of the Cavaliers went 25-for-67 (37.3 percent), with Smith going an abysmal 3-of-10 from the field.
James — who also had eight rebounds and eight assists — was so displeased when he was asked about the Smith play that he got up from the podium and walked out of the press conference room when pressed on back-to-back follow-ups.
In the waning moments of overtime, James and Green were among the players involved in a center-court dustup that began with a verbal confrontation between the Cleveland superstar and Stephen Curry. Later Klay Thompson, Tristan Thompson, Kevin Durant and Green all got embroiled in the back-and-forth. Tristan Thompson ended up earning a Flagrant 2 for shoving the basketball in Green’s face. Curry said it was all much ado about nothing.
“Just words exchanged on a good block, and keep it moving on my end,” said Curry, who scored 29 points on 11-of-23 shooting. “And it’s going to happen. There’s going to be chatter. We’ve gotten very familiar.”
“Just walking,” Tristan Thompson said. “I didn’t hear him but I heard him, and the rest is history.”
The first half went just to script for a Warriors-Cavaliers showdown. James was at his peak, and Curry nearly matched him. Green earned a technical after reacting in vociferous fashion to James embellishing a hard foul.
James knocked down nine of his first 11 field goals, and at the 5:15 mark in the second, the guest’s lead briefly ballooned to 11 points, 51-40. The Warriors crept back thanks to back-to-back threes from Curry and Green, and then Curry nailed an absurd 38-foot buzzer-beater to tie the game at 68 headed into halftime. He would finish 5-of-11 from beyond the three-point arc, and with nine assists to go along with his game-high 29 points.
The Warriors also also dodged an injury scare at the midway point in the first quarter. In a failed attempt to steal a Curry pass, Smith went barreling into Klay Thompson, upending the Splash Brother and twisting his left knee.
Slow to get up, Thompson eventually made his way off the court with a heavy limp before disappearing into the locker room with a trainer.
He returned to the bench with just a minute left on the first-quarter clock and re-entered the game less than a minute into the second stanza. He played 39:38 of the final 41 minutes of the game after he returned and ended up playing 45 minutes, scoring 24 points as he shot 8-for-16 from the field and 5-for-10 from three-point range.
“He turned into Klay right away when he took a 35-footer on his first possession back out on the floor,” Kerr said. “We knew he was OK.”
The team announced that he is dealing a lateral left leg contusion, with the injury closer to his ankle than his knee.
“I’m sore,” Klay Thompson said. “But, who isn’t sore at this point in the year? I’ll be fine in a couple of days. I just need to get some rest and some rehabilitation, and I’ll be good.”