I can’t know this, but I know it: LeBron James would’ve hit the buzzer-beater.
After George Hill clanked the go-ahead free throw with 4.7 seconds left, James was all alone at the top of the arc, his man having left him to try to play defense instead of looking for a quick transition the other way. J.R. Smith, who had hauled in the rebound and dribbled to the sideline, would have kicked it out to James, who would have driven for a floater in traffic, or driven then taken the fallaway midrange jumper he’s been so fond of lately, or just spent a second or two to set himself and taken the three or the long two. I don’t know what James’s shot would have looked like; I know it would have gone in and the Cavs would have won.
That did not happen, as you know. The reason I slept badly last night, the reason I was walking around feeling ill and gut-punched, like I had been broken up with or seen a pet die (I am SORRY for what might sound like hyperbole. I KNOW it’s just a sports thing and doesn’t matter. But my GOD that sucked so hard. It broke me and this is who I am now), was because Lebron did not make the game-winner, because he did not take the game-winner, because J.R. Smith never passed him the ball or called a timeout or attempted his own shot or did anything but dribble out the clock in a tie game.
What exactly was J.R. Smith thinking? There are generally few less answerable questions at all times, but the immediate and obvious assumption was that he had forgotten the score, had thought the Cavaliers were ahead and needed to just hold on the ball for the win. But Smith, speaking to reporters after the game (a relatively long time after the game; the Cavs locker room was closed to reporters for much longer than usual), said that wasn’t it. He claimed he knew the score.
“George shot the free throw, I got the rebound. Tie ballgame and we had a timeout. I tried to get enough space to maybe get a shot off. K.D. was standing right there. I tried to bring it out and get enough space to maybe get a shot off. I looked over at ‘Bron and he looked like he was trying to call a timeout. So I stopped, and the game was over.”
I am immediately skeptical. If Smith was looking to shoot, there was more than enough time for him to do so, or to pass the ball to a teammate in better position. Instead he looked baffled by why LeBron was yelling at him, and threw the ball to Hill with not enough time to get off a shot before the buzzer.
“I knew it was tied. I thought we were going to take a timeout because I got the rebound. I’m pretty sure everybody didn’t think I was going to shoot it over K.D. right there.”
There was more space than he thought he had. There was a lot of space. The idea that he expected an immediate timeout is plausible, but then ... why didn’t he call it himself?
J.R., are you sure you knew the game was tied?
“If I thought we were ahead then I would have just held onto the ball and let them foul me. So, clearly that wasn’t the case.”
I will never know what’s in another man’s mind, but it sure looked to me like Smith was expecting to be fouled.
Another possible way at the truth is to ask the other Cavs what happened there, and coach Ty Lue, in his press conference, said that Smith “thought the game was over” and that Smith “thought we were up one.” But Lue spoke well before Smith did, and after Smith’s comments, Cavs PR sent around a statement claiming that Lue had made his comments before he had talked to Smith, so he had been just guessing.
And what about LeBron, the nearest person to Smith immediately after his brain fart? LeBron isn’t snitching.
There’s one more piece of evidence to consider: lip-reading. Here’s that instantly iconic sequence when James exasperatedly gestures toward ... the basket? The game clock? The scoreboard? Whatever it was, he said nothing and yet manifested the universal body language for “WHAT DID YOU DO?”
And then Smith said something back. I’d urge you to watch this on mute first..
...because after Mike Breen interprets it as Smith saying “I thought we were ahead,” I cannot see it as anything but that.
We may never know. So here I sit, feeling basically hung over and trying to pull silver linings from this debacle. I can find two. One is that this game and this sequence is already immortal. Yes, it was one of the greatest individual performances in NBA history, but it’s going to be remembered even longer for being one of the greatest individual performances in NBA history being utterly ruined by a teammate’s inexplicable mental meltdown. Had this been a 20-point Warriors blowout like we all expected, I’d have turned off the TV in the third and never thought of it again. And now I’ve got a memory. Is that worth the pain? Ask me in the month, I guess.
The other silver lining is even bleaker. It’s that I’m oddly comforted by how shitty this game made me feel. I’ve watched a whole lot of sports in my life, and there’s always the fear of getting jaded, or, working in sportswriting, finding myself coming at this only from a “what am I going to write about” angle and not being able to be a just a regular fan anymore. Basically, this disaster reminded me that sports can still make me feel things. Even if those things are awful.
And they are awful. So awful! Because we will never see another player like LeBron James, and the Cavs might be broken now, and we might’ve just seen his last best (and maybe his last outright) shot at a championship go up in smoke because J.R. Smith’s brain locked up. I want to barf.