Not so long ago now, in a season that marked LeBron James’ final one in Cleveland, the King dragged his Cavaliers through the NBA playoffs and into the finals with an historic personal run along the way.
James upped the ante in game one of the deciding series against the defending champion Golden State Warriors. For the fourth consecutive year the King was tasked to take down the juggernaut the Dubs were, and of all his single-game performances, none were as monstrous as this one.
The 2018 NBA Finals vs Golden State Warriors, Game One
The numbers: 51 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists, 19 of 32 field goals, 10 of 11 free throws in 48 minutes of play
For all the confident claims suggesting Golden State and Cleveland would meet in the finals for the fourth consecutive season at the end of the 2017-18 campaign, a lot went on during the regular season to suggest otherwise – particularly for the Cavaliers. The team had an incredible amount of turnover on their roster, seeing Kyrie Irving, Iman Shumpert, Channing Frye and James Jones depart, and Rodney Hood, George Hill, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. arriving by the end. In between the likes of Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose and Jae Crowder came and went.
However they still managed to finish fourth in the Eastern conference with a 50-32 record, finishing behind the Toronto Raptors (59-23), the Boston Celtics (55-27) and the Philadelphia 76ers (52-30).
Star-player LeBron James was able to personally ignore the roster turmoil that materialised, and had one of his best years to date. Playing in all 82 games and averaging a shave under 37 minutes, he put up 27.5 points – his best since the 2009-10 season – along with a then career high 9.1 assists, 8.6 rebounds and 54 per cent shooting. His scoring numbers in the playoffs jumped, averaging 34 points off 53 per cent shooting, as well as 9.2 rebounds and 8.8 assists a game. James finished with seven 40+ point games and three triple-doubles, and in total accounted for a little under 34 per cent of the Cavs scoring all playoffs.
Cleveland worked their way past the Indiana Pacers in seven, Raptors in four and Celtics in seven before meeting the Warriors, once again, in the finals. But like every other year, the Cavs were underdogs, only this time it seemed a sweep was a certainty. James had done well to carry a bag of chips and some empty soda cans to the finals, now it was time to make the most of the opportunity.
Up against four All-Stars and an All-Defensive talent, with just a toned-down Kevin Love at his disposal, something big was needed from the King.
I will never forgive JR Smith from robbing LeBron James, of his Epic 51 Point Performance. In Game 1 of the 2017-2018 NBA Finals 🤦🏽♂️ LeBron was really facing the Avengers 😂 pic.twitter.com/AIFmxCFQEe
— TheCoolestGuyInSports™ (@AKISNBA) February 28, 2020
James started quick out of the blocks, hitting four of Cleveland’s opening eight field goals and accounted for 11 of their first 20 points. It was clear he had the hot hand, nailing a bunch of long range shots, finishing the quarter as the game’s highest scorer with 12. By comparison the Warriors shot marginally worse, with Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson shooting just 33 per cent each.
Kevin Love, J.R. Smith and Jordan Clarkson all pitched in with James’ guiding hand to close out the quarter, ahead 30-29.
James lifted the intensity in the second, opening with a ferocious jam on the Cavs’ first possession and from there, hit three of his side’s next six jumpers utilising a variety of shot selections. He continued to service his teammates, with Love, Smith and Larry Nance Jr. scoring 12, seven and eight first-half points respectively – a good level on contribution that was almost inexistent during the regular season.
Without their premier wing defender in Andre Iguodala, the Warriors struggled to contain James in one-on-one matchups, as well as preventing the forced mismatches off screens. Shaun Livingston and David West among others were thrown in the King’s way as well as his usual matchup in Kevin Durant, but nothing seemed to work.
The Warriors did hold their own offensively, despite their four stars performing well below par. Steph Curry and Durant poured in 18 and 11 points, helping tie the game at 56-all at the mid-way point. James once again topped the scoring charts in the second, adding a further 12 points to finish with 24, off a remarkable 82 per cent shooting.
However much to the Cavaliers dismay, the third quarter was approaching. The Warriors became well-known for their high-scoring third quarters in the playoffs, averaging a plus-seven points difference out of the sheds to that point. In those 17 games, they were level or trailing on nine occasions at halftime. But it was not as damaging for Cleveland as it had been for the Rockets in the West finals. Highlighting the resistance was a personal 7-0 stretch James managed mid-way through the period, which included back-to-back threes, to isolate a minor Warriors run.
James saved his best scoring for the final quarter, as he helped orchestrate a six-point comeback. He continued to receive a good amount of production from his teammates, with Kevin Love and Jeff Green adding five points each as well as Kyle Korver hitting a crucial three-pointer. In and amongst James’ heroism there were some dodgy calls that did not help his cause, including what appeared to be a clean steal on Durant with under seven minutes to play, and a swipe on James by Kevon Looney that was all hand and no ball with just under six to play.
Nevertheless he pushed on, scoring seven of his 13 fourth quarter points in the final three minutes and 40 seconds, with a series of menacing drives through the lane, one resulting in a three-point play. All helped the Cavs surprisingly jump ahead 106-104 with 32 seconds remaining.
From there one of the most bizarre sequences in finals history occurred, which undid all of the King’s hard work. Guard George Hill was sent to the free throw line with a chance to hand the Cavs a one-point lead should he be successful on both attempts. After making the first Hill missed the second, which was rebounded by Smith who, thinking his team were ahead, dribbled the ball out to half court instead of looking for a go-ahead jumper.
A brain explosion that proved incredibly damaging.
So overtime it was, and while it was essentially a fresh start, it was going to be hard for Cleveland to shake off an embarrassing end to regulation, not to mention they were by far the weaker side. Golden State ended up winning 124-114, thanks to a clinical 17-7 overtime period in their favour.
James’ efforts, which saw him become just the sixth player to score 50 or more in a finals game, and the highest since Michael Jordan’s 55 against the Phoenix Suns in 1993, could not be coupled with a memorable victory as a major underdog.
The Warriors went on to win the next three games with relative ease, securing a series sweep and a second consecutive title. For James, it was the end to his second Cleveland tenure, as he joined the Los Angeles Lakers in the ensuing offseason.
Sports writer based in Auckland, New Zealand. I have a strong passion for a range of codes, including the NBA, NFL, Soccer, Rugby and more.