A Lapse, a Punch and a 2nd Chance: JR Smith's 2018 Finals Blunder Still Stings

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterOctober 1, 2020

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) celebrates a play with teammate JR Smith (21) during the first half of an NBA basketball first round playoff game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool)
Ashley Landis/Associated Press

CLEVELAND — Those who had played with LeBron James had never seen him this upset.

The Cavs had just lost to the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals when JR Smith forgot the score and dribbled the shot clock out at the end of regulation.

Cleveland's players were already in the locker room waiting for James when he entered and proceeded to punch one of the white boards with his shooting hand, causing a bone contusion that later required a soft cast.

"Yeah, we were there but didn't know it was that serious," former Cavaliers point guard Jose Calderon told Bleacher Report. "We kept going on with our meeting. There wasn't a lot of talking after that game. We didn't know how bad (LeBron's hand) was in that moment."

The now-infamous end of Game 1 featured a missed free throw by George Hill, an impressive rebound by Smith over Kevin Durant, and a now legendary meme of James pointing Smith in the direction of the basket he was so quick to run away from.

This wasn't just the Cavs' chance of winning a Finals game against the heavily favored Warriors team that featured Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green; it was perhaps Cleveland's last hope at keeping James in free agency as well.

While Smith was a Finals hero just two years earlier, his mental lapse cost the Cavaliers Game 1 in a series where they would eventually get swept. James would go on to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers on the first day of free agency, and Smith would be banished from the Cavs just a month into the 2018-19 regular season.

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'There Was a Lot of Tension'

The Cavs were massive underdogs going into their fourth straight Finals against Golden State.

Kyrie Irving, a Warriors killer who made the game-winning shot to clinch Cleveland's 3-1 Finals comeback in 2016, was traded to the Boston Celtics during the summer of 2017. The Cavs underwent a massive overhaul at the trade deadline, bringing in Hill, Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood and Larry Nance Jr. while shipping out Isaiah Thomas, Derrick Rose, Jae Crowder, Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert and Dwyane Wade.

Cleveland was pushed to seven games against the Indiana Pacers in the first round and again by an injury-plagued Boston Celtics squad in the East Finals, relying on superhuman efforts from James to even make the championship as a No. 4 seed.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

The Warriors had beaten the Cavaliers in five games in the 2017 Finals, and this series certainly looked like it could end even sooner.

"There was a lot of tension," Calderon said. "At that moment, that was our chance. We go to the free-throw line with George Hill, one of the best free-throw shooters ever and he makes the first one. I'm thinking at least we've got the tie. With the second one, everything happened so quick.

"The miss. The rebound. Everybody's expecting JR to just go up, but he runs out and the game ends. Going to overtime was difficult. We didn't really have a chance in overtime to win that game."

Nance, who grew up a Cavaliers fan in Northeast Ohio, admitted Smith's play at the end made him think they were winning.

"The biggest thing I remember is seeing JR get the rebound and dribble back out and thinking, 'Maybe he knows something I don't?'" Nance told B/R.

"Time ran out, everyone comes back to the bench and it was pretty demoralizing. I felt so bad for him. I can't tell you how many times throughout a game I can't even tell you the score. Obviously in a situation like that you're supposed to know, but I couldn't help but feel bad for him. That's just a human mistake."

Frye, who had won a title in Cleveland following a 2016 trade and had been part of the 2017 Finals team that lost to Golden State, was watching the game from afar but could still feel the emotions from his former teammates.

"I mean, JR's gonna get it social media-wise, but I feel like nobody talks about George Hill missing the free throw. There's a lot of things going on right there. He should have known the situation. LeBron's reaction is ... that's pretty much LeBron," Frye told B/R.

While the Cavs still had a chance to win in overtime, the spirit of the team was nonexistent. James and Smith sat a seat apart during the intermission, neither looking at or saying anything to the other.

"Everyone's looking around thinking, 'Damn, was that our chance?'" Frye said. "If you mess up on something that could have been avoided, it does hurt your spirit. It does hurt your confidence. Everyone's looking around like, 'Whose fault is it?' George Hill is upset he missed the free throw. LeBron's mad that nobody knew the timeout situation or the score. JR doesn't know what's going on. Nobody's focused on the game at that point."

The Warriors would outscore the Cavs 17-7 in overtime, flexing the muscle that everyone expected from the start.

"I'm not saying we weren't already thinking about Game 2, but it was tough. They hit us right away in overtime, and we couldn't recover," Calderon said. "I think (JR forgetting the score) woke up Golden State." 

      

'We Had No Idea At All'

While the Cavs players and coaches all witnessed LeBron take his frustration out on the whiteboard in the locker room after the game, the entire organization did its best to keep his bone contusion quiet.

It wasn't until shortly before James took the podium after a Game 4 loss to end the series that his bone contusion was reported, with the 33-year-old confirming the news by showing off a black cast over his right hand and forearm.

"I let the emotions get the best of me. Pretty much played the last three games with a broken hand," James revealed at the time.

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

The Cavaliers' strategy of keeping James' injury quiet throughout the series worked, however. The Warriors never caught word of James' bone contusion until after the Finals were over, with at least one member just finding out the news a year later.

"No. We had no idea at all. That's news to me," one former Warriors player told B/R in 2019.

"That was never brought up in a meeting or among the players or coaches. That's news to me, so I know it wasn't brought up. That's tough to play like that. He didn't have his hand taped up or anything, so that's crazy."

The Cavaliers didn't think anything of the punch at the time, instead trying to shake off Smith's mistake and attempting to focus on head coach Tyronn Lue's postgame message.

"I can't tell you how many times I've punched a whiteboard or punched a chair or kicked a water bottle. It's just part of the deal. We all thought it was no big deal," Nance said.

While there was no formal announcement from the team, players began noticing James was icing his hand during practices before Game 2. He never wore a cast, at least around teammates, until after the Finals were over.

"I think we all kind of knew something was up. At the same time it was like, 'Come on, that's Superman. He'll be fine,'" Nance said.

James would end up being fine by most standards. He averaged 28.3 points, 8.7 rebounds, 10.7 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.0 blocks over the final three games, numbers most players never come close to even with a healthy shooting hand.

After shooting 19-of-32 overall (59.4 percent) and 3-of-7 from three (42.9 percent) in Game 1, James converted just 49.2 percent of his overall looks for the rest of the series, including a 27.3 percent mark from three. He attempted just a single three-pointer in Game 4.

"I didn't know that he hurt his hand, but I could tell that something had happened just watching him play the next game," Frye said. "He was just a little tender. But everyone's hurt at this time of the year, so I thought maybe he's just tired."

Smith had a hangover in his own play from Game 1, going on to average 9.3 points while shooting a miserable 32.3 percent from the field over the next three losses. No one on the coaching staff addressed Smith's mistake at any point, nor did any of the Cavaliers that B/R polled say anything to Smith about it, choosing to try and let the moment pass.

While James managed his pain well enough to give the Cavaliers a chance, Smith simply couldn't rebound from the end of Game 1.

     

JR's End in Cleveland

After James left for the Lakers in the summer of 2018, the Cavaliers gave Kevin Love a new four-year, $120 million extension, brought back Frye in free agency and held on to veterans like Hill, Kyle Korver, Clarkson and Hood.

The goal was to still make the playoffs, despite turning into the worst team in the NBA the last time James left in 2010.

Smith suffered a hip injury during training camp, and the Cavaliers' front office was pushing Lue to play younger members of the organization in Collin Sexton and Cedi Osman over the veteran shooting guard.

"Being in the situation I've been in for the past four years, being a starter on four Finals teams, it's been obviously different," Smith told B/R at the time.

Smith bounced around the rotation, skipping from starter to out of the rotation entirely on some nights. Social media had not forgotten his Game 1 mistake, either, and Smith didn't carry the same happy-go-lucky spirit that followed him for much of his Cavs' tenure.

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

After Lue was fired following an 0-6 start to the season, it was clear Cleveland was heading toward another rebuild.

"We brought the whole team back except for 'Bron and we wanted to compete," Frye said. "You put JR on most teams and he's going to be the most talented guy, right? He's one of the best shooters I've ever seen, he's defensively good, and when you put him in a situation where you may or may not play, that's a lot."

Smith lasted just 11 games with the Cavaliers, later sent home by GM Koby Altman as he looked to find a trade. A deal would never come, and the Cavs ultimately waived him eight months later.

No players B/R spoke to took issue with Smith's fallout with the team.

"I mean, that's a big adjustment to ask somebody who's closing in on 33, 34 years old. To ask him, 'Hey, I know you won a championship and been in the Finals for the last four years, but guess what, we're going to reset this and you're not starting,'" Nance said.

"At 33, 34, I don't fault him at all. At that age, it's time to win. Whether he wanted out or whatever happened, I have nothing bad to say about Swish. He was a great teammate to me, he's always been a good guy to me. The rest of the team wasn't looking at him like he was crazy; we all understood completely."

     

'I'm So Happy for Him'

It was a long time before Smith would play with anyone again in the NBA following his banishment in November 2018, much less James.

After the Cavs waived him in July 2019, Smith waited for another opportunity in the league. After watching former teammate Carmelo Anthony go through his own lengthy free-agent period, it was fair to wonder if Smith's time in the league was done.

The Lakers worked out both Smith and Dion Waiters in early March, ultimately going with the younger shooting guard, also a former (albeit brief) teammate of James.

Smith would have to wait until July 1 to officially get a contract with the Lakers, marking a period of 20 months between professional games. Smith admitted to reporters that he went through "a very depressed state for a long time" while out of the league.

"I know what it looked like from the outside, looking at JR's situation, but from the inside, we understood that it's hard for someone as talented as him to just sit there and not try to compete at the highest level," Frye said.

By playing for a Lakers team now in the Western Conference Finals, Smith is just four wins away from spending his fifth NBA Finals with LeBron James, the most of any teammate outside of James Jones.

Ashley Landis/Associated Press

"I think it's great. He worked hard," Calderon said. "I was telling him the other day, he and Joakim Noah being out and now coming back and having the opportunity to play, it's not easy. I'm so happy for him to have this opportunity. He has the chance to win another championship. If you put yourself in that situation, not too many guys work that many months and keep themselves in good enough shape to come back and play. I'm happy for him."

While Smith hasn't been called on much yet in the playoffs, he proved he can still hit shots by making six three-pointers and dropping 20 points in one of the Lakers' bubble exhibition games.

"I think if people look back on JR and what he was doing on those Finals teams, they'd be very impressed by what he was doing defensively. We wouldn't have won if he hadn't got hot and got those eight points in the third quarter in 2016," Frye said.

"He's always a threat. You need the ingredients to make the best meal. You put a lineup with Kuzma, JR, LeBron, AD, Danny Green—those guys are all 6'7" and above. That's a huge lineup of shooters and defenders. All these guys can get buckets in the playoffs, and they've shown it."

Of course, there may come a time at the end of a big game where Smith finds himself on the court next to James. With it may come the inevitable flashbacks of a blown Game 1 lead, one that would alter the future for both James and Smith.

Still, former teammates believe Smith's overall reputation in crunch time deserves the benefit of the doubt.

"I don't think there's any hesitation whatsoever. You trust somebody and you win with him for so long, one mistake doesn't destroy what you've built," Nance said.

"When he signed with the Lakers, I was thrilled for him. Whether he signed for us, the Lakers, the Blazers or the Pistons, I don't care, I think he deserves a spot in the league and I'm happy he's getting another chance."

The personal relationship between James and Smith reportedly remained strong even after the 2018 Finals, with Frye noting members of the 2016 Cavs title team still keep a text chain going to this day.

With both James and Smith now 35, their time together could ultimately come to an end whenever the Lakers' season is over. For all the bad that the 2018 Finals brought between Smith's late-game mental lapse, James' subsequent self-inflicted injury and the two parting ways, 2020 could help provide closure on what's otherwise been a very successful experience as teammates.