LeBron James may have authored the greatest Finals game ever, and it slipped through the Cavs' hands

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  • The Golden State Warriors pulled out a Game 1 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals despite a near-heroic performance from LeBron James.
  • Former Cleveland Cavaliers GM David Griffin argued that it would have been perhaps the greatest Finals performance ever if the Cavs had pulled out the win.
  • Instead, the Cavs unravelled through a series of controversial calls and lapses in judgment, and James’ all-time great performance will go down as a footnote.

The Cleveland Cavaliers entered these NBA Finals, their fourth straight against the Golden State Warriors, as massive underdogs.

Their chances at winning would rely on numerous factors, but the beginning of any hypothetical in which the Cavs upset the vastly superior Warriors began with LeBron James playing at a borderline insane level.

James, somehow, answered those calls. Yet the Cavs had Game 1 of the Finals slip through their fingers.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe argued that James is having perhaps the greatest postseason in NBA history. Leading up to the Finals, James was averaging 34 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists per game while shooting a tidy 54% from the field and a passable 34% from three. Such production, combined with the load he’s carried for the Cavaliers, all while playing every game this season and leading the entire playoffs in minutes, is unfathomable for a player his age with so many miles.

And then James found a new way top himself in Game 1 on Thursday. James posted 51 points on 19-of-32 shooting, with 8 rebounds and 8 assists. He controlled the tempo, answered seemingly every Warriors run with several big baskets of his own, and locked in defensively.

“If he had won that, it might be the best Finals game ever played, by anyone,” former Cavs GM David Griffin told Business Insider. “Hard to think of its equal.”

LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan is a debate that rages on despite a chorus of voices shouting that it’s a fruitless argument.

But Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, who played with and against Jordan, noted after the game that James might be playing at a level the NBA has never seen before.

Game 1 would have been James’ masterpiece if the Cavs could have stayed wound for just seconds longer. Instead, they unravelled in a way that was tough to watch, even for those without a rooting interest.

Consider LeBron’s final minute of regulation, juxtaposed with the Cavs’ play. James and the Cavs weathered a storm, getting right back into the game after the Warriors pushed the lead to six with 4:39 remaining. With 50 seconds remaining, James muscled a layup through Stephen Curry and Kevon Looney for the hoop, plus the foul, a play that summarized his physical superiority.

On the ensuing possession, James took a charge on Kevin Durant that referees eventually reviewed and reversed, resulting in two free throws from Durant that tied the game.

No matter. On the next play, James once again exploded to the basket, dropping in a hanging layup to the put the Cavs back up by two.

Curry responded with his own driving layup and got fouled by Kevin Love, allowing Curry to convert the three-point play to put the Warriors up one.

We know what happened next. James found a cutting George Hill, who got fouled by Klay Thompson. Hill made one of two free throws to tie the game, missing the second. J.R. Smith got the offensive rebound and appeared to forget the score, running out the clock, as James desperately pointed at the basket, reminding his teammate that, no, the Cavs were not winning.

It felt as though the game was over before overtime even began. The Cavs had their chance to take a previously unimaginable one-game lead in the Finals, stealing home-court from the Warriors. When they couldn’t do it in 48 minutes, it was not hard to see the Warriors pouncing on the opportunity.

If they had stayed in tact for just moments longer, it would be hard, as Griffin said, to think of a better performance by one player, ever. For James to go into the toughest road arena in the NBA, with the Cavs’ 12-point underdogs, and hang 49 efficient points (he scored two in overtime) on the team best suited to defend him, would have been a career milestone.

Statistically, it would be a shining moment for him: He had never scored 50 points in a postseason game. Even in past monumental performances – Game 6 against the Boston Celtics in 2012 or Games 5, 6, and 7 against the Warriors in 2016 – James had better help around him.

The script for the Cavs to keep this series competitive starts with James and includes a lot of “ifs” – if Love can be a reliable scorer, if Smith and Kyle Korver can hit open threes, if Tristan Thompson can beat the Warriors up on the boards, if the Warriors’ lesser shooters miss the good looks Cleveland is willing to grant them. James and the Cavs only got about half of that equation in Game 1, and were still in position to win. It just wasn’t quite enough.

The final minute alone did not do in the Cavs, but it’s what will be remembered of this game. James’ greatness may end up being a footnote because the result was ultimately what everyone expected – a Warriors win.

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