Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals is in the books.
The Warriors used a big push at the end of the first half, then surged ahead during their favorite quarter, to put the Cavaliers in chase mode during the 4th quarter. Surprising to many but not to one, LeBron James powered his team behind a 51-8-8 effort and a three point play to give his team a two point lead with under a minute to go.
Following James’ free throw, a charge on Kevin Durant was changed to a blocking foul on James, which enabled the Warriors to tie things up at the free throw line. James answered with another drive, but Stephen Curry countered with his own and-1 to give Golden State the lead.
The rest of the story? You already know, and you didn’t come here to have me explain it to you.
Is it rare in basketball when a player’s reputation both precedes him and then he goes about fulfilling it? (Other than Chris Paul and James Harden, I mean) J.R. Smith, who will never be confused with a cerebral playmaker, was the culprit of three insanely dumb plays. You can’t often say that single plays make a decisive difference in the game. Smith was up to the challenge.
You have already read ad nauseam about what happened at the end, but there was a sequence much earlier that also had a major impact via Smith’s bad decisions.
At the end of the first half, Cleveland had the ball and a chance to add to a 3 point lead. Smith, with the shot clock winding down, drove into the heart of the defense and, instead of kicking it to an open Kevin Love on the right wing, forces it to a covered Jeff Green on the left wing, and Green badly missed a fadeaway three. To make matters much worse, with under 5 seconds to play, the Warriors pushed the ball up the sideline to Steph Curry. Smith, instead of staying in front of Curry, went for the steal. Curry, with nobody standing in front of him, shot a wide open three — and forget that it was from 30 feet out; that’s just a normal jumper for Curry — and when it splashed through the net, the Warriors had tied the game.
It won’t be the sequence that people remember, but as I watched it unfold, first with Smith wasting a chance to build on a lead, and then giving Curry a wide open look to tie the game heading into the dreaded 3rd quarter of death, I had bad premonitions toward the Cavs’ chances.
To Cleveland’s credit they were gamers throughout, but what was also apparent is how mediocre at best LeBron’s teammates are. Kevin Love was solid, and Larry Nance, Jr. continues to be a great spark off the bench, but everyone else was awful. Cleveland was producing open shots, and nobody — from Jeff Green to Smith to George Hill to Jordan Clarkson — could make them. The Cavs can’t use the “we’ll play much better next game” excuse, because they won’t. Because they can’t.
Lastly, the other sequence everyone was talking about — the Durant charge/not-a-charge against LeBron — was best analyzed by Royce Young. First, the play from a wider angle:
After Durant crashed into James and a quick deliberation led the referees to call a charge, they took it to the review cameras:
The “let’s check if he’s in the restricted area” trigger is such a joke. He was clearly not and they used that to review a judgment call that otherwise isn’t reviewable.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) June 1, 2018
Essentially Royce’s contention, and I would tend to agree, is the refs used the pretense of one reviewable rule (the restricted area) to double-check another non-reviewable rule (block/charge).
This is the replay rule on the block/charge. It can only be triggered to check if the defender was in the restricted area, to which then the officials can review the actual call, and in the final two minutes: pic.twitter.com/H8QjICMwg7— Royce Young (@royceyoung) June 1, 2018
This is where James was standing when the refs argued they had sufficient evidence to trigger standard of review based on the restricted area element of the rule. Like many things in laws/rules, there is intentional leeway for subjectivity in the phrasing, “not reasonably certain.”
Referee Tony Brothers (top left) is locked on the point of impact between James and Durant, while Ken Mauer (top right) and Ed Malloy (bottom) have a clear view of James’ body position at the point of impact. In fact, if you read Mauer’s body language real time after the play, he’s solely looking to Brothers to wait and see if Brothers concluded that James had defensive position, which was the only questionable element. Mauer never confers with Malloy, which is what Mauer would have done if the question of James’ feet were an issue.
I’ll give refs leeway in a lot of situations, but in this one, “not reasonably certain?” No way.
And of course the league gave themselves cover in the end.
As Royce also points out, OKC fans have a personal precedent for this bad sequence, and the Thunder’s play was even more egregious.
Huge play by Josh Huestis drawing the charge in crunch time. pic.twitter.com/s9tDj2KpDc— Up The Thunder (@UpTheThunder) December 14, 2017
One might argue, “well, the outcome is the key thing, at least the refs got the play right in the end.” And if this is your position, then you and I have different views on the point of the rules and how they hold everyone — players, coaches and referees — accountable for the betterment of the NBA product en toto.
And if you also were to argue that outcome-based referee decisions also factor in the idea that this is ultimately entertainment, let me ask you this — is this series as a whole more or less entertaining as a result of the game 1 episode? I don’t really have a rooting interest at this point; I only want to experience something that is worth watching. And if game 1 — both individually and taken within the entirety of this series — is the best we’re going to get, then we’re all the worse for it.
This is exactly what I’m talking about, a perspective that is both lazy and nearsighted.
They got the call right, obviously was still moving into KD. It was the fair result. If getting the call right isn't your concern, I'm really not interested in your argument https://t.co/6WPNEiBHDm— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) June 1, 2018
I agree with this from Ziller, because contrary to Duncan and others’ view, the refs didn’t get the call right. That call being, what makes a charge/block play reviewable. They got the standard of review wrong, and not in the midst of accelerated action, but during stoppage in play where they could have reasoned it through.
You can argue that it shouldn’t matter because the officials got the call right in the end. But that’s not how the rules work. This play should never have been reviewed under NBA rules. If you review that to see if his foot is on the line you’d better start reviewing every crunch-time baseline drive or corner three, or hell, three-pointer that isn’t from Curryland period.
The officials messed this up.
As Mike Prada writes, the rule is imprecise and should be updated. Either the restricted area AND the legal guarding position are reviewable, or you make the restricted area reviewable and legal guarding position not reviewable (as it is now), but then the latter decision should default to the on-court call based on the restricted area conclusion. In other words, if a charge was called on the court and restricted area is found to be cleared, the on-court call must stand. Otherwise, as we saw in game 1, you open yourselves up to questioning the integrity of the referees because they will be seen to have manipulated one rule in order to correct a mistake, which is the complaint we see now. And if you think, “well, it doesn’t happen often...” NBA Finals, Game 1, right?
I know I may seem like this guy in arguing that procedure should matter, even when the outcome is (maybe) correct, but when it comes to establishing rules, which underpin the entire point of sport (otherwise it would just be people running around), process matters. It’s why we have an entire body of legal theory called procedural law, and why a judge will refuse to hear a case if process isn’t followed.
If you skirt the process, you may find yourself OK in the near term, but over time, it erodes the integrity of the sport and fans’ ability to trust in the outcome (one of the reasons the NFL has found itself on shaky grounds in the past few years). And as we have seen in some of the reaction from Rockets fans following their loss to the Warriors, once even the mere idea of impropriety sets in, you can never really blot it out.