Cleveland is suffering the bitter taste of Murphy’s Law at the NBA Finals
Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong for J.R., Thompson and the spiraling Cavs — but LeBron keeps the faith
OAKLAND, California — And when it comes to the game, I’m willing to play harder / So harder I go, there he go / They chant M-V-P when I shoot a free throw! This is a decade-old bar spit by a still-in-his-prime Lil Wayne. It appeared on 2008’s “Ransom,” one of the first songs from a new rapper named Drake. On his feature verse, Lil Wayne raps about one of the greatest spectacles in the NBA: the moment when a team’s best player gets fouled, toes the free throw line and gets serenaded with chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!” while preparing to shoot.
A moment like this came to life in Game 2 of the 2018 NBA Finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors. But it was unlike what you’d expect. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green — none of them got the loud “MVP” refrains inside their home venue, Oracle Arena. Instead, Cavs shooting guard J.R. Smith became the focal point of the crowd. The shouts, however, weren’t those of praise.
Raucous Golden State fans made a mockery of Smith in the first quarter, after he scored a bucket, drew the foul and went to the charity stripe for a chance at an old-fashioned 3-point play. Trolling ensued as a result of his mental miscue, being unaware of the score in the final moments of Game 1, which cost his team a chance to steal the series opener on the road. There’s little doubt the way Game 1 ended sucked the life out of Cleveland — and especially Smith.
MVP chants for J.R. Smith at the foul line pic.twitter.com/xp9a4rgOx4
— Rob Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) June 4, 2018
“Terrible,” said Smith of his performance in his team’s 122-103 Game 2 loss. In 31 minutes on the floor, he shot only 2-for-9 from the field and 1-for-4 from 3-point range, with just five points, as the only Cavs starter who failed to score in double digits. Even before the sarcastic “MVP” chants, Warriors spectators tactically attempted to get inside of the embattled Smith’s head, delivering a petty standing ovation during the announcement of the game’s starting lineups, while LeBron James whispered in his teammate’s ear, presumably telling him to block out the noise and just play ball. “I’m always a person who the fans like to talk to or heckle,” he said. “I like it. I’d rather them do that than not acknowledge me at all. I appreciate it.”
On the other end of the court, Curry, Golden State’s two-time league MVP, couldn’t miss. He dropped 33 points on 11-for-26 shooting from the field, including an NBA Finals-record nine made 3-pointers. “If he takes 17 of them thangs, you know he’s going to hit some shots,” said Cavs point guard George Hill. “You just gotta continue to pray to the basketball gods, do what you can, challenging all shots, and don’t let him get them easy ones.”
The thing is, Curry even made the impossible ones. That’s the type of night it was for him. Early in the fourth quarter, as Golden State’s shot clock ferociously ticked down, the skilled point guard gravitated farther and farther away from the basket, placing Cavs forward Kevin Love by his lonesome out on Curry island. Love had seen a play like this unfold before — most notably during Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals between the Cavs and Warriors, when he made a crucial defensive stop that allowed Cleveland to hold on and claim the franchise’s first championship. In the Game 2 one-on-one matchup with Love, Curry flicked up an unfathomable 31-footer, and his off-balance prayer was somehow answered.
“No matter where you are on the floor, especially past half court on their side, he always has a chance to make a miraculous shot,” Love said. “We made a gamble and he hit a shot from about … it seemed like 35 feet out there. So I felt like it was well-contested. We played 23.5 good seconds of defense, and he turned around and hit a moon ball.”
The Curry Effect even left the court and trickled its way into Cleveland’s tense postgame locker room. At the end of Game 1, Cavs big man Tristan Thompson got into it with Warriors players Shaun Livingston and Draymond Green — altercations that led to a flagrant foul call, immediate ejection and $25,000 fine. After Game 2, Thompson got into it with a reporter who posed this question: When Curry goes on a roll like that, do you feel a sense of helplessness out there when you can’t defend him?
“No. The f—? No … ,” Thompson responded. “When I’m switching on him, I’m guarding him … I am never helpless with no guy in the NBA. … F—ed up. Next question.” But the interview ended there, with Thompson grabbing his bag, parting the Red Sea of the media scrum and leaving the locker room.
Down the arena’s hall in the pressroom, James, as he’s been required to do on this stage so many times before, had to maintain hope, as he spoke for not only himself but also his entire team. During the 2015 Finals, when the Cavs went down 3-2 in the series against the Warriors, James delivered the brashest response to a question about a loss in his career.
“I feel confident because I’m the best player in the world,” James said after Game 5 in 2015. “It’s simple.” This time, after falling to 0-2 in the Finals to Golden State for the third straight year, his mood was starkly different.
LeBron James: “It sucks to lose … but I’ll never lose my love of the game.” pic.twitter.com/2eRBbH7JQ8
— The Athletic (@TheAthleticSF) June 4, 2018
“It sucks when you go out there and you give it everything that you have,” said James, his left sclera still bloodshot from being poked in the eye in the series opener, “and you prep, and your mind is in it, and your body is in it, and you come out on the losing end.” Barely anything went right for the Cavs in these first two games — but if there’s one thing that’s gone unscathed, it’s the hope of LeBron James.
“I mean, it sucks to lose, that’s for sure,” he said. “But it definitely won’t stop me from preparing to be better the next day.”