OAKLAND — After delivering one of the greatest Finals performances of all time, LeBron James was asked to do the impossible. He had already scored 51 points and brought the Cavaliers to within seconds of pulling off a shocking upset over his arch-nemesis Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
That was relatively easy compared to the request he now faced: He had to read J.R. Smith’s mind.
And no matter how brilliant James was last night, he could not do that.
How could he? How could James, who so effortlessly recalls the tiniest details of plays that happened hours previously, possibly understand why Smith had grabbed a rebound in a tie game and dribbled away from the basket and out toward half court as those last few seconds of regulation ticked off the clock.
“No,” James said before throwing on his sunglasses and marching out of the postgame media session. “I don’t know his state of mind.”
“He thought it was over,” Cavs coach Ty Lue said. “He thought we were up one.”
Smith claimed otherwise. That he knew it was tied and he was either looking for James or waiting for a timeout or … something. No one really bought it. If it were possible to quote Draymond Green’s facial expression, it would sum up the reaction to Smith’s explanation.
Smith’s blunder was only one of the inexplicable events that led to Golden State’s 124-114 overtime victory and overshadowed yet another James postseason masterpiece. That baffling series of plays included:
An overturned offensive foul on Kevin Durant that resulted in a foul on James and two Durant free throws.
An inexcusable foul by Kevin Love that gave Steph Curry a three-point play
A missed free throw by George Hill, a career 80 percent shooter from the line, that led to J.R. Smith’s brain cramp.
A flagrant-2 foul called on Tristan Thompson that led to Thompson’s ejection and preceded a shoving match with Draymond Green that may yield further punishment.
Taken individually, any one of those plays could have been overcome by James, who got to the basket and scored at will down the stretch. Taken as a whole, not even James at the peak of his powers can manage all of that chaos and dysfunction.
It certainly didn’t help that his shooters went 7-for-30 from beyond the arc, or that they couldn’t stop Curry and Klay Thompson from lighting up the scoreboard. Beyond Love and backup center Larry Nance, none of the other Cavs could provide any kid of sustainable offense.
And yet, James still almost made it happen. Hyperbole and James go hand-in-hand, but make no mistake: This was one of the greatest individual Finals performances in history. It was the first 50-point game in the Finals since Michael Jordan in 1993, and no one has ever recorded a 51-8-8 line.
Right up until that bizarre sequence, this game belonged entirely to James. He was perfect in the first quarter, save for a missed free throw, and equally strong in the second. He survived the Warriors’ third quarter onslaught and was unstoppable in the fourth.
In a postseason full of astonishing performances, this was his crowning moment.
“It was great,” Lue said. “I mean, it was epic, and he did enough to carry this team to a victory. You know, we just came up short. But this is LeBron James, that’s who he is. That’s why he’s the best player in the world. He’s been doing it for us all season.
“To do what he did tonight and come out robbed,” Lue added. “It’s just not right.”
Lue was referring to the block that was originally ruled a charge but was changed upon review. It was a weird call, but ultimately correct.
Once the referees decided to review whether James was in fact outside the restricted area, it opened up the whole play to scrutiny. It was determined that while James was in the correct place to absorb a charge, he arrived at his spot a second too late.
Lue’s contention was that James was so clearly outside the restricted area it never should have been reviewed in the first place. James’ claim was that he was there, regardless.
“I thought I read that play just as well as I read any play in my career, defensively,” James said. “I 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.”
Again, that call could have been overcome and in fact, it was. James immediately scored on the next possession, just as he had on the previous two. Without Andre Iguodala, who has missed the last five games with a leg contusion, the Warriors had little recourse to slow James down.
He got to the rim whenever he wanted and mixed in his usual assortment of competent jump shooting and brilliant passing. It was sadly fitting that one of his best passes — a kickout to a wide open Jeff Green in the corner — resulted in a miss.
All season long we’ve wondered if James was good enough to carry this team to the Finals. Few would have guessed that he’d be able to take down the Golden State juggernaut by himself. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on James’ greatness, he somehow manages to one-up himself.
The Cavs should have won this one. Against all odds and reason, they had it in their hands, only to unravel at the worst possible moment. The frustration and tension was evident on James’ face during his postgame session.
“I always live in the present. I don’t know how frustrated I was after a loss in the past,” he said. “I think we played as well as — tonight we played as well 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. Simple as that.”
He’s wrong about that last part. Those plays weren’t taken away, so much as given to the Warriors, who finally caught fire in the overtime. They don’t need that much help, but they do know how to capitalize on opportunity.
It’s a thankless job being part of James’ supporting cast. There’s never going to be enough credit and there’s always plenty of blame. On this night, the blame was warranted. James may have been able to lead this ragtag crew back to the Finals, but they let him down right when he needed them the most.