It would be hard to overstate just how badly the Cavs were screwed by the universe at the end of Game 1 Thursday night. A rare reversed judgment call, an unexpected missed free throw, an uncalled lane violation, an apparent uncalled loose-ball foul, and an all-time blunder by one of their own, all inside the final minute of regulation, ultimately ruined what could’ve been an incredible upset by an overwhelming underdog.
The NBA’s Last Two Minute Report for Game 1 more-or-less confirms the impression that the Cavs were disproportionately affected by the officiating. The report curiously labels as “incidental or immaterial” Draymond Green’s lane violation on George Hill’s missed free throw, despite the fact that, had this infraction been called with the same level of anal-retentive punctiliousness as the reversal of Kevin Durant’s charge, Hill—a career 80 percent free throw shooter—would’ve gotten another attempt from the line. That seems, uhh, like an important detail!
But the report also makes clear that it shouldn’t have been Hill attempting the free throws in the first place—upon review, the league found that LeBron James was fouled by Draymond Green earlier in the possession that ultimately put Hill at the line, nearly eight seconds before Klay Thompson fouled Hill underneath. Because the Warriors were in the penalty, Green’s foul would’ve put LeBron at the line to shoot the potential tying and go-ahead free throws. If you feel a bone-deep certainty that LeBron would’ve nailed the game-winner in the notorious final sequence, perhaps you feel the same way about his chances from the free throw line. Alas.
The L2M report wasn’t the only admission of referee error to come Friday afternoon—the league also reduced the late Flagrant 2 penalty given to Tristan Thompson to a Flagrant 1, and, most importantly, declined to suspend Thompson. The league did double down on the explanation for the overturned charge that kept the Warriors in the game, but wherever you stand on that call, surely we can all agree that it blows major chunks to have such a hotly contested game turn on that kind of officiating intervention. The play won’t be remembered for Kevin Durant boldly driving into the lane and drawing a blocking foul; it sure as hell won’t be remembered for LeBron bravely standing his ground for a game-defining charge. It was the difference between the Cavs having possession and a two-point lead with less than a minute to go and the Warriors having one of the world’s best free-throw shooters on the line with a chance to tie, and it will be remembered for the refs using a slow-motion review to parse a call they evidently screwed up in realtime. That’s not really basketball at all!
There’s nothing that says that the Cavs would’ve won if the refs had gotten everything right, and ultimately it wasn’t a refereeing decision but a J.R. Smith meltdown that cost the Cavs their last best chance at snatching a victory in Oakland, to say nothing of their overtime no-show. But I am a hundred times more aware of the specific influence of the officials in that game than I am of any particular missed rotation or errant pass or bricked three-pointer, and that should just never be the case.