BY DANIEL GLUSKOTER
Forced into overtime to avoid being on the losing end of what would’ve been a colossal upset in the opening game of the NBA Finals, the Warriors overcame a super human effort by LeBron James to score a dramatic 124-114 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers Thursday night at Oracle Arena.
In a wild game that featured 15 lead changes in addition to being tied 17 times, Golden State scored the first nine points of overtime to take a 116-107 lead after Cleveland’s J.R. Smith inexplicably lost track of the score after grabbing an offensive rebound with four seconds remaining in a tie game.
With George Hill at the free throw line following a foul by Klay Thompson with 4.7 seconds remaining in regulation, Hill, an 80% free throw shooter, made the first foul shot before missing the second. Smith, seemingly thinking the Cavs were ahead, dribbling out towards half court rather than looking to put the ball back up or pass to a teammate. ”He thought it was over. He thought we were up one,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said.
The Warriors win put them up 1-0 in the best of seven series in spite of another all world performance from Cleveland’s LeBron James, playing in his eighth straight NBA Finals and ninth overall. James became the first player in Finals history to score at least 50 points in a losing effort. It was also his eighth 40 point game during these playoffs, tying Jerry West’s 1965 effort for the most in a single playoffs.
Playing 47 out of a possible 53 minutes, James scored 51 points on 19-32 shooting to go along with eight rebounds and eight assists. But only two came in overtime. At one point, he scored 12 straight in the third quarter, keeping in Cavs in the game during a stretch where the Warriors often distance themselves from their opponent.
James was also in the middle of one of the most significant, and controversial,calls of the game. With the Cavs up by a basket and only 36 seconds remaining, Kevin Durant was called for a charge for running into James. But the referees couldn’t reach a consensus on whether it was a charge or a block and went to the scorers table for a replay review.
After what seemed like an eternity in an already tense game, crew chief Ken Mauer reversed the call, ruling that James moved into Durant’s path before falling to the floor, resulting in two free throws for Durant. He converted both, and suddenly what looked like a Cleveland possession with a two point lead was instead a tie game. After the game, a frustrated James was still livid about the reversal. “I read that play just as well as I’ve read any play in my career, maybe in my life. I saw the play happening. I knew I was outside the charge line, and I knew I took the hit. I don’t know what else to say”.
Asked if it was the most frustrated or disappointed he’s been after a Finals game, James added “I would say yeah. I don’t know how frustrated I was after a loss in the past. I think we played as well tonight as we’ve played all postseason, and we gave ourselves a chance possession after possession after possession. There were just some plays that were kind of taken away from us”.
Meanwhile, Golden State got solid efforts from its usual suspects. Steph Curry led the way with 29 points on 11-23 shooting, including a clutch 30 footer at the halftime buzzer to tie the game at 56-56 going into the locker room after being down by 11 with five minutes remaining. Curry also dished off for nine assists. Durant pitched in 26, but was just 8-22 from the field and only scored five points after the third quarter.
Klay Thompson, returning to the floor after a scary collision with Smith forced him into the locker room midway thru the first quarter, scored 24 including five three pointers. Draymond Green also had yet another solid all-around game. In a team leading 47 minutes of action, he scored 13 to go along with 11 rebounds, nine assists and five steals. Shaun Livingston added 10 points with perfect shooting from both the field and foul line.
Asked about Thompson’s scare after the game, Warriors coach Steve Kerr stated “It looked pretty bad. I think he was out the rest of the quarter. So I didn’t know if he was going to be able to come back or not, but he was available and he turned into Klay right away when he took a 35-footer on his first possession back out on the floor, so we knew he was okay”.
When asked about James effort, Kerr said “They have a guy who is playing basketball at a level that I’m not sure anybody’s ever seen before, when you consider everything he’s doing. He’s got a really good group of teammates around him, and they put a lot of pressure on you. They’re really hard to guard. So it’s going to be a tough series”.
Kevin Love also had a strong game for the Cavs, scoring 21 to go along with 13 rebounds. Larry Nance Jr, in his first Finals appearance, added nine points and 11 rebounds off the bench in just 19 minutes of action. Cleveland finished the game with a significant edge on the boards, 53-38, but Golden State finished with a playoff-low eight turnovers.
The series resumes with the teams facing off in Game 2 back at Oracle Sunday night at 5PM.