There is one thing the defending champs have looked this season – unstoppable.
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Since 1947, only nine times has an NBA Finals series ended in a sweep.
Some will remember the series as one-sided, with the outcome never in doubt. Others may remember it as one of the more competitive sweeps in finals history, with a number of jaw-dropping individual performances from the games biggest stars and two classic games (Games 1 and 3).
However, no one will ever reflect on the 2018 NBA Finals and think the Cavs had any chance at all of upsetting the Warriors.
The Cavs best chance of making this a series came and went in Game 1. Had they won the first match, the whole complexion of the series changes.
The Warriors took the Cavs best shot and withstood it before brushing them aside in overtime. Stating the obvious, the Cavs needed at least one win on the road to be in this series.
The final 4.7 seconds of Game 1 will be what people remember when they think back on the 2018 NBA Finals.
Not LeBron James’ 51-point performance, not Stephen Curry’s record nine three-pointers in Game 2 (which was still very competitive until Curry went nuclear), and amazingly, not Kevin Durant’s near perfect 43 point performance Game 3.
When people look back on the 2018 NBA Finals they will think about JR Smith forgetting the score.
Smith’s error of judgement has been well chronicled and because of this, has worn the entirety of the blame for the Cavs’ final seconds failures.
Yes, Smith did not know the score and he lied about it – both James and coach Tyronn Lue sold him out. Frankly, it turned into a circus.
Another theory is that Smith had actually forgotten which basket he was attacking and was starting a fast break towards the wrong end of the floor.
Either way, a professional basketball player should know better. The Oracle Arena crowd welcomed JR with a huge roar during his introduction at Game 2 and proceeded to bellow the MVP chant each time he went to the free throw line.
Smith was the embodiment of the Cavs shortcomings and as a consequence, became the scapegoat. And neither George Hill – who missed a go-ahead free throw – nor the best player in the world nor the team’s coach made any meaningful effort to defend him.
But does Smith deserve all the criticism he has received? Is he entirely to blame for the Game 1 loss? No, absolutely not.
First and foremost the game went to overtime, the Cavs did not lose in regulation after Smith’s brain fade.
It was obvious to every person on the planet, Cavs coaches and players included, that overtime meant a Warriors victory but in reality, the game was not over.
In fact, the Cavs’ shooting guard made a genuinely great basketball play to outrebound the near 7-foot Kevin Durant, who had inside position, to win the crucial possession for the Cavs.
Had the Warriors secured the rebound they would have had 4.7 seconds to call a timeout, advance the ball, and draw up a play that more likely than not would have got the Warriors one good, if not great, look at the basket to win the game.
Let’s take a step back.
George Hill was at the foul line, a career 80% free throw shooter, and had just hit the first free throw to tie the game up.
The only reason Smith ended up with the ball was because Hill missed the second free throw. Of course, had Hill hit the shot the Cavs are up one and the Warriors have 4.7 seconds to manufacture a game-winning shot.
It is advantage Cavs, but if any team can pull it off it’s the Warriors (or the Brad Stevens’ Celtics).
Should Hill have hit the shot? Yes. Was victory assured if he had, not at all? Did he cost the team the game? No.
The Cavs had a timeout remaining and did not use it. This, in my mind, is the most egregious act of all.
Sure, the now blamed two-guard could have thrown up a rushed contested floater as soon as he rebounded the ball, but that’s a low percentage shot.
If that theoretical shot misses, it gives the Warriors one final possession, albeit a very short one, to attempt a game-winner.
The right call is a timeout.
As a professional basketball player Smith should, one, know the score.
Two, know how many timeouts his team has.
And three, be able to determine the most appropriate action. He failed in this.
However, so did his Coach and so did his all-time great, potential greatest of all time, teammate LeBron James.
It is likely that history will remember the 2018 NBA Finals as a sweep in which LeBron did it all, but simply did not have the help.
The enduring image of this series will be James scolding Smith for his mistake. Lest we not forget though, that LeBron could have taken action and controlled those final 4.7 seconds.
James is the leader of that team, sure he may have trusted his teammate to make the right play, but given the narrative that LeBron had no help – maybe he should have called for a timeout after the offensive board.
Had he done that and the Cavs left Oracle Arena up 1-0, maybe we have a series on our hands – and certainly not a sweep.