With under a minute to play in last night’s Game 3 of the NBA Finals and the Cleveland Cavaliers leading 113-111, Golden State’s Kevin Durant calmly stepped into and nailed a long three-pointer right over LeBron James’s outstretched hand. It gave the Warriors a one-point lead, and left the Cavaliers 45 seconds to take it back.
“They should get a two-for-one here,” ABC broadcast analyst Jeff Van Gundy said, as Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving brought the ball across midcourt. By this he meant that if the Cavaliers got a good shot off in the next 10 or 12 seconds, they’d leave enough time on the game clock that even if the Warriors ran off a full shot-clock on their next possession, the Cavaliers would (assuming the Warriors didn’t grab an offensive rebound) still get the ball for the game’s final possession, and with enough time remaining to actually run a play instead of just hurling up a desperation heave and hoping for a miracle.
They didn’t have to go for a two-for-one, of course. In the abstract, if they didn’t believe they could create a genuinely good shot in the next 10-12 seconds, they could bite the bullet, run the best play they had, and figure one really good shot is worth more than two bad ones. But in any case, the one thing they absolutely could not do was blow the two-for-one opportunity and get a bad, low-percentage shot.
Well, here’s what they did.
More precisely, that’s what Kyrie Irving did, as the only Cavalier who touched the ball in what turned out to be the last meaningful possession of the season. He dribbled away the crucial two-for-one opportunity and settled for a wobbly, step-back, desperation heave from a mile away. (The Warriors went on to salt away the ensuing free-throw contest and won, 118-113, to take an effectively insurmountable three-games-to-zero lead in the best-of-seven series.)
Superficially, as an item in a play-by-play description of the game, this is not all that different from the moment in last year’s Game 7 when Irving, with less than a minute left, dribble-dribble-dribbled his way into a side-step three-pointer from basically that same spot on the floor to give the Cavaliers the final lead of the series.
Look closer, though, and the differences are stark. Last time, the Cavaliers ran a high screen to get Kyrie matched up with Steph Curry, a merely okay defender; this time, the defender was Klay Thompson, the single toughest perimeter defender on either team, the worst available matchup to isolate. Last time, the shot went up with nearly a minute left to play; the Cavaliers were virtually assured of at least one more full-length possession no matter what. Last time, the game, and series, were tied. In short, last time, the Cavs had a margin to work with; this time, when Kyrie had finished dribbling away their chance at a second useful possession, they had none, and he took a shot that had virtually no chance of redeeming the choice to squander that margin.
On cold, mechanical terms, this is a catastrophe, of course. Because of the wasted time; because of the blown two-for-one chance; because nearly any sort of action involving other players would be preferable to a one-on-one isolation against the best perimeter defender on the other team; because the resulting shot was hot garbage; and, perhaps most of all, because LeBron James never so much as touched the ball in the single highest-leverage possession of the entire season—the moment that would determine not only whether the game’s ensuing 30 or so seconds mattered, but whether Game 4 would matter, and possibly whether there would even be any games beyond that. More than that, he wasn’t involved in the play in any way—not even as a screener, where, who knows, maybe the threat of him rumbling downhill toward the rim might have forced the Warriors into an uncomfortable choice that resulted in a better shot for Irving even without LeBron touching the ball. Instead, he stood at the top of the key and watched, while Irving put his head down and dribbled into a swamp. That is stupid, tactically, and somehow worse, morally.
Yes, LeBron was tired. He’d played 45-plus minutes at the highest possible gear by that point, scoring a game-high 39 points to go with 11 rebounds and nine assists. The effects of all that work had showed only a minute before, when he dribbled around a screen, had a lane to the hoop, and let Andre Iguodala catch him, settling for a bad fall-away jumper that missed instead of barreling all the way to the rim. And on the pivotal Durant three-pointer, instead of meeting Durant at half-court and hounding the ball out of his hands, LeBron had sagged just inside the three-point arc and inadvertently given Durant the space to shoot. He was as fatigued and flat-footed as I’ve seen him.
But still. He is LeBron James—the NBA’s best player, possibly its best player ever, the superhuman who, though apparently dead on his feet in the final minutes of that famous Game 7 in which Kyrie hit that memorable shot, nevertheless found or willed into existence the fumes to run down a sprinting fastbreak and deliver the single most heroic play I’ve ever seen an athlete make—and Kyrie Irving, for all the hay he’d made in a brilliant third quarter by putting his head down and dribbling into swamps, is not. If involving even a dog-tired LeBron James in the highest-leverage possession of the season is not a better choice than leaving him at the top of the key to watch a lesser teammate go one-on-one with one of the NBA’s best defenders, then the sport of basketball is a crapshoot. If the sport of basketball is not a crapshoot, LeBron fucking James has to be involved in the game’s biggest moment.
We’ll probably never know for sure whether the Cavaliers had a deliberate plan to turn down that two-for-one opportunity, or to have Irving go solo with their season on the line, or whether Irving decided it was his time to shine, or lost track of the clock, or what. We’ll never really know whose fault it was, or if it really was anybody’s fault. But that’s all ephemera; nobody will miss it. The season, LeBron’s 14th, is over, for all intents and purposes. It ends without the game’s greatest player even getting a chance to participate in its biggest moment, against the toughest opposition he ever faced. The thing to miss, the thing Kyrie dribbled away, is the chance to see what it might have brought out of him.