NBA Christmas came early for me this week. If someone had told me a week ago that the absolute highlights of my sports fan week would be delivered to me by Kobe Bryant and J.R. Smith, I would have looked at them as if they had ten heads. And therein is the wonder of the world of sports. You simply never know what’s going to happen next, but whatever it may be, chances are it’s going to be pretty darn cool. Talk about a box of chocolates!
My 11 hour flight home was scheduled to land last night at 6:30 p.m. Oakland time, or roughly a half hour after the tipoff of Game 1. In planning ahead I optimistically felt I could make it home in time for the second half of the game (an exciting prospect, since I’d witnessed no live basketball in nearly two weeks).
After the obligatory extra half hour on the plane while the boys of Norwegian Air tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to connect the jet bridge to our aircraft’s door, followed by absurdly long lines at customs and baggage retrieval, the second half viewing dream was dead. I got in the car with 10 minutes to go in the 4th quarter of what appeared to be a close game. For reasons I won’t bother to bore anyone with, I was left to follow the game on my Yahoo!Sports app, as the radio was out and I had no other connect.
Any of you familiar with the trials of following live sporting events on a phone app know this is a less than ideal circumstance. We took my exit off the freeway with about a minute to go in regulation, and I see LeBron has just scored to put the Cavs up two with .51 seconds left. Then my next update came with .36 seconds remaining, when I see Durant has been hit with a charging call. I’m assuming game over at this point, with the Cavs stealing the home court edge behind another superhuman LeBron effort.
Not so fast. While I was retrieving my bags out of the trunk and racing into my house to turn on the final few seconds of the game, that charge call was reversed (I was momentarily disappointed not to be able to see LeBron’s “whine in disbelief” face over that reversal — like I said, I’d been gone quite awhile and it’s the simple pleasures you miss most), and instead of Cavs ball up two, KD had gone to the line and hit two free throws to tie things.
The ensuing 30 seconds or so had apparently resulted in a lot of action. As I finally sat down with the remote in my hand, George Hill was at the free throw line, Cavs down 1, with 4.7 seconds left.
This is where J.R. Smith warmly welcomed me home from my long journey. Let it be noted here that I’m not a J.R. Smith fan, placing him somewhere in that rarified air occupied by good ole Swaggy P on my personal starting five of losers, malcontents and coach killers.
So as I sat there thinking about the percentage likelihood of the Dubs being able to take it coast to coast in 4.7 seconds to win the game (not at all out of the question, by the way), Hill badly bricks the second free throw and Smith rebounds. He then inexplicably begins dribbling away from the hoop, deciding against putting up a shot or passing to the best player on the planet, wide open and loudly imploring him to share the ball.
Far too late, J.R. swings a desperate pass to a teammate in the corner, but the clock expires and we get bonus basketball (plus several priceless shots of LBJ in complete agony, howling at J.R. as the burning embers of a wasted 50+ point night waft into the air at Oracle Arena).
I mean absolutely awesome, right? Did Smith think they were up a point at the time of Hill’s miss (J.R. swears that wasn’t the case, although I don’t believe him)? Did he think he could dribble out and reset the offense all in 4.7 seconds (not J.R.’s skillset, even on his best day with a full 24)? Even more remarkable — here’s a guy that has never met a shot he didn’t like, yet decided against either a short baby-hook in the lane immediately after pulling down the rebound, or a contested jump shot once he took the ball out past the three-point line.
I suppose we’ll never know what he was thinking (if there was any thinking involved), but it made for great theatre, with the two protagonists (LBJ and J.R.) providing me one of those timeless moments to think back upon and smile about for the rest of my sports fan life. Yes, it was that good.
And did any of us doubt what was to follow in the OT? The looks on the Warriors faces as they walked off, still very much alive, at the end of regulation reminded me of a college kid behind the wheel of his convertible, open beer in hand, going 95 past a state trooper, when the trooper elects not to turn on the red and blue lights and pull out and follow. A total reprieve. The Cavs were toast for the OT (and yes, probably the series — I’m calling sweep right now). The overjoyed giggling and squealing of Dubs fans across the Bay Area is still audible this morning.
Here’s my real issue, though. While J.R. is rightly being vilified this morning by his teammates, the entire city of Cleveland, King James and the SportsAttic, why does George Hill seem to be skating by with a free pass?
I don’t know much about George Hill. He seems a perfectly nice man. A capable point guard on middle of the pack teams until the trade that landed him in Cleveland earlier this year. He didn’t ask to go to Cleveland. For all I know, he may not have been excited about it at all, given the heightened spotlight and expectations that accompanied the deal. And man did he wilt in a big spot last night.
He’s a point guard. A starting NBA point guard in the most important moment in his entire NBA career to date. And in a classic case of that moment being way too big, he badly short-armed that second free throw.
This is a career 80 percent free throw shooter we’re talking about, who shot 78.6% from the stripe this year. The first one is supposed to be the hard one in these two-shot situations, but it was the second one that barely reached iron. In fact, he missed it so badly that it created J.R.’s rebound opportunity, as literally no one on the floor expected the odd carom that resulted from such a miserable attempt.
If Hill had done what all 18,000 yellow-t-shirt-clad fans in the arena expected him to do at that moment, and sunk the shot to put Cleveland up one, what would have happened next?
Maybe Steph Curry would have casually drained a 40-foot three to turn the Bay Area faithful into one delirious puddle of hysteria. Or maybe Clay would have hit one of those effortless jumpers of his from the corner as time expired. Or maybe KD would have taken the inbounds pass and drained one from the top of the key like he’s done so many times before. Maybe.
But we’ll never know, and now J.R. will be fitted with an all-time set of goat horns for blowing LeBron’s last chance at a title in Cleveland. And maybe The King’s last title chance anywhere, depending on how things go for him after donning the purple and gold of the Lakers this fall.
What a game. Amazing finish. Thank you J.R., for this wonderful and indelible memory. Thank you LeBron, for that delightful facial expression that combined fury and WTF so perfectly, and thank you George Hill, for making it all possible with one of the worst misses in NBA Finals history (that nobody is choosing to talk about the morning after).