Sports

J.R. Smith and LeBron James Star in a Harrowing, Single-Take Cinematic Masterpiece

LeBron James J.R. Smith game
We finally can see what unfolded on the bench after the infamous play.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Cleveland Cavaliers are down 2-0 in the NBA Finals, but it didn’t have to be this way. Had J.R. Smith responded differently after grabbing that offensive rebound at the end of Game 1, the basketball world would be talking about Cleveland’s chances at protecting home court ahead of Game 3 right now. He didn’t, of course, and so everyone is using the extended rest time to rehash his blunder.

It takes a lot to overshadow a 51-point Finals performance from LeBron James, but Game 1 will forever be known as “The J.R. Smith Game.” No one can know for sure what exactly went through his head during and immediately after the mistake, including Smith himself. Between Games 1 and 2, Smith told reporters, “After thinking about it a lot, obviously the last 24 hours or however long it’s been since the game was over, I can’t say I was sure of anything at that point.”

Thankfully, there is video evidence of the play’s immediate aftermath that we can parse through to glean some insight into Smith’s motivations and mindset. The footage, which comes via Ballislife.com, follows Smith and LeBron for two minutes and 51 seconds, between the final whistle and the start of the overtime period (which the Cavaliers would eventually lose by 10 points).

Like the opening to Touch of Evil or the Copacabana entrance scene in Goodfellas, this video is an example of how effective and evocative a long, single-take shot can be. With all due respect to Orson Welles and Martin Scorsese, however, their attempts can’t match the harrowing drama of the NBA’s lingering camerawork on J.R. Smith. It demands a close, second-by-second examination.

0:03: J.R. desperately tries to explain his case to LeBron. During the live broadcast, ABC’s Mike Breen read Smith’s lips and interpreted him as saying, “I thought we were ahead.” It’s less clear from this angle, but J.R. appears to confident in his ability to talk his way out of this latest pickle.

0:07: Kyle Korver high-fives Smith. Korver looks suspiciously peppy given the circumstances, leading credence to an evidence-free conspiracy theory I just made up: Korver didn’t know the score, either.

0:16: Smith sits one chair away from LeBron on the bench, and they pensively stare into space like Benjamin and Elaine on the bus at the end of The Graduate.

0:28: Smith pulls at his jersey and bites the Goodyear sponsorship patch, eliciting mixed emotions from tire executives in Akron, Ohio.

0:33: In a clear homage to François Truffaut, the camera zooms in on the ruminant J.R. Smith.

0:55: Sprinting away from the basket and to the 3-point line is rather tiring, so Smith hydrates.

1:02: Korver valiantly tries to pump up his teammates again, providing more evidence that he’s unaware of the Cavs’ situation.

1:04: J.R. solemnly shakes his head in response to something George Hill says. (Perhaps Hill asked whether they should break the news to Kyle Korver?)

1:36: J.R. watches the jumbotron which, judging by the audio, plays a Warriors pump-up video.

1:42: LeBron confirms with head coach Tyronn Lue that the Cavs had a timeout, and James crumples in despair. Korver claps some more.

1:55: Tyronn Lue crouches next to Smith and leads a brief huddle. Cleveland players put their hands in the middle for a teamwork chant. (Korver thrusts both his hands.)

2:02: LeBron reluctantly puts his hand in.

2:13: LeBron’s aggravation becomes more animated, though it’s not aimed at anyone in particular. Smith, meanwhile, looks pretty relaxed.

2:30: LeBron bolts up and heads to the court.

2:40: J.R. eventually follows, but there is a hopeful jaunt to his gait. Unlike everyone else in the arena, he looks to have forgotten the fact that he had just forgotten that the game was tied. He looks up at the jumbotron, though I won’t assume he checks the score.