Under the spotlight: How one play in the Finals can define a player’s reputation

A couple of days ago, a video showing the Cleveland Cavaliers’ bench at the end of regulation in Game 1 of the NBA Finals surfaced and quickly went viral. It showed LeBron James slumped on one end of the bench, breathing heavily while wiping his face with a towel. Kyle Korver was there, encouraging his teammates as they braced themselves for another five minutes of battle against the Golden State Warriors and three of the best shooters the league has ever seen.

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When Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue approached and told the players that the team had one timeout left that they could have used in their last possession, James is visibly upset. He had scored 49 points up until that point, and would end with a career playoff high of 51. He had done everything to put Cleveland on the cusp of a 1-0 lead in the series and steal homecourt advantage from the Warriors and here they were, still tied and heading into overtime.

Cavaliers Huddle Extended Video

Over on the other end of the Cavaliers’ bench was JR Smith. Throughout the video, he stared blankly on the Oracle Arena floor, perhaps aware that he was at least part of the reason why James was upset. LeBron finished with 51 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists, but his greatest postseason performance somehow ended up being a footnote. Because for the first time in NBA Finals history, a player scored 50 points in a game and still lost.

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The Cavaliers didn’t lose the game on a single play. It could have been when the referees reversed the foul call on LeBron from a charging foul on Kevin Durant to a blocking foul on James. It could have been when the Warriors ran riot in overtime, with Klay Thompson and Draymond Green knocking down triples as Cleveland lost steam in the extra session. But most people didn’t see it that way. Most people point to a single play as the reason they lost. And, as in the video of the Cavaliers’ bench, JR Smith was in the middle of it.

JR Smith Game 1 Blunder

Watch video here.

Every basketball fan knows how the play unfolded by now: James finds George Hill underneath the basket, and he’s fouled by Klay Thompson with 4.7 seconds left and the Cavaliers down one. Hill makes the first free throw to tie the game, but misses the second. Smith somehow outrebounds Durant, but instead of taking a shot, passing to a wide open James a few feet away, or calling a timeout, he dribbles the ball at halfcourt, before passing to Hill, who took a contested three as time expires.

It’s the play that gave birth to a thousand memes, garnered him ‘MVP’ chants from the Oracle Arena crowd when he went to the free throw line in Game 2, and perhaps ruined the Cavaliers’ best chance to make this Finals an interesting series. After the game, Smith said that he was aware of the score but was trying to call a timeout, but Lue thought otherwise, and so did the Warriors and a lot of other people. During the media availability before Game 2, Smith backtracked on his earlier statement, this time saying that he “wasn’t sure of anything at that point in the game.”

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There’s still a chance for Smith to make an impact in the Finals, especially as the series goes back to Cleveland, but it’s more likely that this is the play that he’ll always be remembered for. His blunder is already being ranked as among the most costly in NBA history given how high the stakes were.

Smith was an important part of the Cavaliers team that overcame a 3-1 deficit and defeated the Warriors in the Finals two years ago, but more likely than not, when people hear his name, their minds will picture JR dribbling the ball away from the basket, LeBron James frustratingly gesturing as the game headed into overtime, and Smith mouthing the words ‘I thought we were ahead’ as they headed to the Cleveland bench.

Like everyone else, the Warriors’ bench was watching as Smith’s blunder occurred, including center JaVale McGee. McGee also has a reputation as a punchline, a player who was more likely be seen on Inside the NBA’s Shaqtin’ A Fool rather than a highlight reel. The big man, however, has a chance to be remembered for something else.

JaVale McGee Finals Game 2 Highlights

With Andre Iguodala out due to injury, McGee started for the Warriors in Game 2, and proceeded to give the defending champions a lift. He scored 12 points on an impeccable 6-for-6 shooting in 18 minutes of play. He’ll probably still be known for his gaffes by the end of his career, but a lot will also remember him for catching lobs, scoring putbacks, or defending James well for one possession in the Finals.

In the NBA Finals, everyone’s reputation is on the line. One play can either change or cement how people will remember a player, for better or worse. Ron Artest (now Metta World Peace) was part of the Malice in the Palace fight all those years ago, but he’ll also be remembered for blowing a kiss to the Staples Center crowd after hitting a crucial three-pointer during Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals between the Lakers and the Celtics or for scoring a putback in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals against the Phoenix Suns that same year.

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Rasheed Wallace will be known by fans for racking up technical fouls the way Steph Curry racks up shooting records and for shouting ‘Ball don’t lie!’ whenever an opposing player he fouled misses a free throw. But many others will never forget him for helping the 2004 Detroit Pistons take down the Lakers in the NBA Finals after being traded to the team mid-season.

Like Artest and Wallace before them, the Finals presents a chance for Smith and McGee (and Nick Young, also known more for his antics than his play) to change how people will remember them. Smith made an unforgettable mental error for the Cavaliers, while McGee has made a significant impact for the Warriors. This series is far from over, as the Warriors will tell everyone. And much like a turnover on one end can be forgotten with a defensive stop on the other, these remaining games will give these players (especially Smith) another chance to be a part of a play that people will never forget.InqPOP!/Immanuel Canicosa


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