OAKLAND — It was all right there for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Fourth quarter. Tie score. Twenty-four seconds on the clock. The Cavaliers had the ball and a gift-wrapped chance to steal Game 1 of the NBA Finals on the road. And they had James, of course, the greatest force in the game, one who already had went off for 42 points, the most he had ever scored in a Finals game.
The consensus was that James and the underdog Cavaliers had a puncher’s chance against the favored Golden State Warriors in the best-of-seven series. If ever there was time for the James to land a roundhouse right, Finals history said this was it. The winner of the opener has a 78 percent success rate in the series.
But rather than force the issue and take the ball to the basket after a timeout — yes, coach David Blatt had one to take this time — James backed off to take a deep 2-pointer over Andre Iguodala that missed badly. Three times he has been in that pressure situation in an NBA Finals game in his career, and he failed to deliver all three times.
Isn’t that what separates James from Michael Jordan, whose ghost he continues to chase all these years later? Jordan was sneaky great. Whether it was by skill or savvy, hook or by crook, Jordan consistently found ways to get off a high-percentage shots in game situations. James? He doesn’t think the game as much as he plays it, and too often he comes up short, it seems.
“I got to what I wanted to do — a step-back (jump shot),” said James, who finished with 44 points and six assists. “I’ve made them before to give us the lead. We had our chances.”
Teammate Iman Shumpert caught the long rebound in flight and hoisted a prayer from the corner that hit the side of the rim, then bounced over it.
Most of the raucous Oracle Arena crowd were on its feet for the final five minutes of the period, and only then could the fans exhale again.
“I thought Iman’s follow was going in,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “It looked good the whole way. It was right on line. It was maybe a few inches short.”
Stephen Curry drained four consecutive free throws, Harrison Barnes nailed a 3-pointer and the Warriors were never threatened thereafter. In the extra session, the Cavaliers were held to two points on 1-of-10 shooting. They also were guilty of three turnovers.
“We just forced them into tough shots the whole overtime,” Curry said. “It was just a classic five minutes that we needed to get that win.”
Now the Warriors have to believe they’ve survived the Cavaliers’ best punch.
The Warriors’ postseason inexperience and comparative lack of size were storylines before the series, and they were factors at the outset. The home team trailed 29-19 at the close of one period, one in which it bricked 15 of 21 field goal tries and were outrebounded by a 17-9 margin. Still, they stuck with the plan and got back in the game.
Other than Iguodala, who came up huge at both ends in the stretch drive, none of the Warriors packed his “A” game. Curry was good — 26 points, eight assists — but he wasn’t great. Ditto Marreese Speights off the bench. Starters Andrew Bogut, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson struggled throughout.
“We were lucky to get into overtime,” Kerr conceded.
Just as the Cavaliers will be lucky to win a game in the series if Kyrie Irving has played his last one of the season.
When healthy, Irving is on the short list of best players in the league. Even on a bum left knee, he was one of the best players in the series opener. But when his bad wheel gave out again, the Cavaliers’ season may have buckled with it. While the fans celebrated in the final seconds, Irving and his 23 points hobbled to the dressing room. A short time later, he was unable to walk on his own power. Finally, he left the building on crutches.
“As you can tell by the tone of my voice, I’m a little worried,” said Irving, who sat in front of his locker with a towel over his head for the longest time.
Irving is the primary ballhandler and second option that the Cavaliers desperately need to make it a series. If Irving cannot answer the bell, then who will step up? Can J.R. Smith be counted on to get it done? In the pregame warmup, Smith showed up in a hoodie and a fade haircut but with the same, old jump unreliable shot. He bricked 10 of 13 field goal tries and didn’t score a single point after halftime.
While Curry and the Warriors continued to lead charmed lives, James and the Cavaliers could only curse their rotten luck.
“We gave ourselves a chance, man,” James moaned afterward. “I missed a tough one.”
A bit too tough, it turned out.
Paul Ladewski is a veteran Chicago sports journalist who recently relocated to the Bay Area as the Warriors beat writer for the San Francisco Examiner. He is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com.