Instead, Game 1 will be remembered as the night JR Smith dribbled out the clock in a tie game.
George Hill misses a free throw with the game tied and the Cavaliers are unable to get a shot off after grabbing the offensive board.
A back-and-forth final five minutes culminated in Cleveland Cavaliers guard George Hill at the free throw line with 4.7 seconds remaining with a chance to win the game. After hitting his first attempt to tie the score, Hill missed his second.
Smith recovered the rebound, but instead of firing up a shot that could have given Cleveland — a 13-point underdog entering the game — an unlikely road win, he retreated to the perimeter, thinking the Cavaliers held the lead, waiting for a foul that never came.
After the game, there were conflicting explanations for Smith’s play.
“He thought we were up one,” said Cavs coach Tyronn Lue. But Smith denied he had gotten the score wrong and defended his play.
“I was trying to get enough to bring it out to get a shot off,” Smith told reporters. “I knew we were tied; I thought we were going to call timeout. If I thought we were ahead, I’d have held on to the ball and let them foul me.”
By the time Smith realized his mistake and passed, the clock ran out before Hill could get up a shot.
• Finals Forecast: Who wins, who takes MVP?
• Lowe: Which lineup gives Cavs best chance?
• So happy together: Warriors’ secret weapon
• Special edition sneakers for the NBA Finals
• How Cavs, Warriors rated as HS prospects
• Cavs-Warriors IV was inevitable … right?
• How the Cavs can defy odds, pull off upset
• Playoff MVPs: LeBron, Draymond and more
• 5-on-5: Answering the big Finals questions
• NBA offseason guides for eliminated teams
• Tickets on Vivid Seats
Given the second chance, the Golden State Warriors didn’t dribble it away. They scored the first nine points of overtime, pulling away for a 124-114 win to take a 1-0 lead in the fourth consecutive Finals matchup between the two teams.
Smith’s folly overshadowed a dominant performance by James, whose 51 points were a career high in 236 playoff games and the sixth-highest total in Finals history, per ESPN Stats and Information research. Taking advantage of the lateral leg contusion and bone bruise that sidelined Warriors forward Andre Iguodala, Golden State’s best defensive matchup for him, James started hot — scoring 12 points on perfect 4-of-4 shooting in the first quarter — and rarely cooled.
Behind James’ performance and a strong return by Kevin Love, who missed Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals before clearing concussion protocol Thursday afternoon, Cleveland led the bulk of the first half. The Cavaliers led just five minutes combined in double-digit losses at Oracle Arena in Game 1 of the past two Finals, but they held the lead for 19:50 in the first half this time around.
By the break, however, Golden State had managed to tie the game with a 16-5 run over the final 5:01 of the second quarter, capped by Curry’s deep 3 — his longest make of the season, per ESPN Stats and Information research — to beat the halftime buzzer.
Steph Curry hits a 3-pointer from long range as the second quarter clock expires in Game 1.
The momentum the Warriors took to the locker room seemed to portend another of their trademark third-quarter explosions. James prevented it, running up 36 points by the midway point of the third. Cleveland trailed by just six heading to the final period.
There, James scored or assisted on nine of the Cavaliers’ 12 field goals, including a driving layup with 32.1 seconds left that gave Cleveland a 106-104 lead.
At the other end, Curry responded with a 3-point play that put the Warriors ahead with 23.5 seconds left. James held the ball at the top of the key, running the clock down for a final shot, when Klay Thompson fouled a cutting Hill away from the ball, sending him to the line for two shots and setting up a finish to regulation no one watching will ever forget.
To cap the bizarre ending, Tristan Thompson was ejected with 2.6 seconds remaining in overtime after a confrontation over Thompson’s aggressive contest on a meaningless Shaun Livingston shot, which earned him a flagrant 2 foul.
LeBron James’ block of Steph Curry sets off tempers at the end of Game 1.
The end of regulation will take its place among a handful of similar famous finishes. Golden State coach Steve Kerr compared it to a 1984 playoff game where Dallas Mavericks guard Derek Harper dribbled out the clock in a tie game and the Los Angeles Lakers went on to win in overtime.
That same year, legendary Lakers point guard Magic Johnson lost track of time and did not get up a shot before the end of regulation in Game 2 of the Finals, which the Boston Celtics won in overtime en route to beating the Lakers in a seven-game series. It remains to be seen whether Cleveland can stay competitive enough with the Warriors to make the result of Game 1 as meaningful to the final outcome of the series as in 1984.
For one night, though, Smith’s mistake stole the show from the stars on both sides.