Why you relate more to J.R. Smith than to LeBron James

Along with answers to a few other NBA questions

You’re watching J.R. Smith make an embarrassing mistake to lose Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Instantly you feel in your stomach what he is feeling. He has reminded you of the most humiliating times in your own life. It’s as if a door to the basement of your memory has swung open to reveal the stupid things you’ve said, the stumbles, the misunderstandings, the regrets, the ignorances and inconsiderations that you wish you could change, all piled away in your downstairs with the other things you can’t bear to deal with.

J.R. Smith steals an offensive rebound over Kevin Durant with 4.5 seconds remaining, which should have been the greatest play of his life, and by instinct he reverses it into the worst play. You’re thinking, isn’t that just like J.R. Smith? To go from the hero to the idiot in 5 seconds or less? To be defined by this absurd mistake for the rest of his life?

What you’re feeling is relief that it wasn’t you.

Unlike J.R. Smith, the mistakes that to this day make you cringe were, in most cases, relatively private. So many of your blunders were limited to an audience of family or friends or the people you’ve gone to school or work with, or maybe strangers who don’t know who you are and will never see you again. How did you make yourself feel better in the depths of your humiliation? You said something like, “At least it didn’t happen on TV with the whole world watching.”

When J.R. Smith turned his back on what could have been the game-winning layup, when the loudest cheers he ever could have earned gave way mid-throat to screams of ridicule and anger as he dribbled away from the basket while LeBron James watched in horror, it happened with literally the whole world watching. The hero became the laughingstock, and everyone everywhere saw it.

“I knew we were tied," Smith tried to say after his visiting Cavaliers had lost to the defending champion Warriors 124-114 in the ensuing overtime. "It's just, I thought we were going to take a timeout because I got the rebound.”

So, here’s the second part. When you’ve made the mistake so mortifying that you’re in a panic, almost paralyzed with shame, you have two options. You can plead guilty to it, which enables those who had been shrieking or laughing to now feel some sympathy for you, because they’re all thinking how glad they are that it wasn’t them who did this foolish thing. That was how J.R. Smith should have responded.

Instead he insisted that he was not guilty. His brilliantly-conceived plan, as he tried to explain it, was to dribble away the valuable seconds of a tie game in order for his team to call timeout, even though there would not be enough time to create a shot as promising as the point-blank layup that could have transformed J.R. Smith into a savior – not only of his team, but also of this NBA Finals that everyone has appeared to believe the Warriors should win in a rout.

Anyone watching the final seconds of regulation, including his own coach, could see that J.R. Smith had been convinced, mistakenly, that his team held the lead.

"If I thought we were ahead, then I would have just held onto the ball and let them foul me," Smith insisted. "So, clearly that wasn't the case."

If you believed your team was ahead, actually, you would dribble away from the defense in hope of running off as much time as possible before the foul, which is what J.R. Smith did.

So you’re watching J.R. Smith make the most obvious mistake you’ve seen in an NBA Finals since Magic Johnson dribbled out the clock on his way to losing to the Celtics in 1984, and then you’re hearing him compound his misfortune by claiming that he actually meant to do what he did, and what you’re thinking is if you ever find yourself in his shoes then you’re not going to make it worse.

But is that really true? Will you learn from the lesson of J.R. Smith if everything goes wrong for you at the worst possible time? The answer, even as you shake your head at him, is that you hope you never have to find out.

And now a few questions:

Did the referees make a mistake of their own by reversing the offensive charge foul by Kevin Durant against LeBron in the final minute of regulation?

The rule states that officials should review a play in the final two minutes if they doubt whether the defender was in the restricted area. James was near the restricted area, the referees weren’t sure whether he had crossed the dotted line or not, so the play was reviewed. "It was determined he was out of the restricted area, but he was not in legal guarding position prior to Durant's separate shooting motion,” said lead referee Ken Mauer. “So we had to change it to a blocking foul."

The block/charge call is one of the hardest NBA plays to judge. Referees routinely argue the correct interpretation among themselves. Whether they ruled in favor of Durant or James, their decision was going to be questioned.

But there can be no question that they followed the rule, which insists that referees review such plays in the final two minutes when they aren’t sure whether the restricted area has been violated. If you don’t like the play, then write to your local G.M. and ask him to lobby for a change to the rulebook.

Is Bryan Colangelo going to be fired?

If the reports are true that his wife was tweeting via the secret accounts that criticized Colangelo’s colleagues and players, including star center Joel Embiid, then Colangelo probably will be replaced as president of the 76ers – if for no other reason than it will be extremely difficult for him to regain the trust of Embiid and others while recruiting LeBron or Paul George as free agents to Philadelphia next month. (Note that James’s former GM, David Griffin, is himself a free agent who would be available to step in for Colangelo - just in time to recruit LeBron.)

Did the Cavaliers waste their only chance of winning a game against Golden State?

Be aware that a lot of the people who are predicting that the Cavaliers are now finished are the same ones who insisted that Golden State would run away with Game 1. You should be skeptical of such forecasts. It’s true that his teammates wasted a glorious line of 51 points, 8 assists and 8 rebounds from LeBron. But he’s been playing so well this postseason that he probably has more such games in him. This series will be closer than the oddsmakers think.

NBAnswers is a newsletter from American insider Ian Thomsen for NBA fans everywhere.

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