It’s hard to imagine, but sometimes games that are packed with hundreds, maybe thousands, of important plays and key moments can turn on a single one of them. Sometimes, those single moments can turn a whole series.
Take for example, the NBA Finals between Cleveland and Golden State and the Stanley Cup Finals between Vegas and Washington.
Let’s start with hockey.
The Vegas Golden Knights are the best sports story of the year, an expansion team that finished first in its division and cruised through three rounds of playoffs in an unimaginable bid for the most treasured trophy in hockey – the Stanley Cup.
Vegas won the opener of the Cups Finals against Washington, a franchise with a load of postseason failures in its resume. In Game 2, Washington led 3-2 with under two minutes to play. Win the game. Take the series back home tied at 1-1.
The Golden Knights were buzzing around Caps goalie Braden Holtby and he was on his knees at the left post when the puck flashed past him to Alex Tuch at the right side of the net. There was the gaping net in front of Tuch and the puck on his stick, a dream moment for any hockey player. Holtby thrust his body in the other direction and thrust his stick out just as Tuch snapped the shot toward the net.
If Tuch had scored and tied the game, the Golden Knights might well have ridden the emotion of the moment to a win and a 2-0 series lead. Instead, the Caps survived those final seconds to secure the win and then went home and won Game 3 and 4 to take control of the series. One save had saved Washington.
Then we have the NBA.
Cleveland and its diminished roster after LeBron James was supposed to have no chance against Golden State. Yet, in the series opener, with five seconds left, there was the Cavaliers’ George Hill at the foul line for two shots that could put his team in front.
Hill made the first, tying the game. The second bounced away off the rim and J.R. Smith grabbed it with an impressive one-armed rebound. It was the last thing he did right.
Faced with an easy layup or the likelihood of being fouled, Smith dribbled away from the basket, away from the opportunity to win the game. It was the ultimate brain-lock by a player who has experienced strange adventures on and off the court before. With James standing there, somewhat astonished at the turn of events, his arms thrust out in a “What are you doing?’’ gesture, Smith secured overtime for Golden State. The Warriors, of course, went on to win and then won Game 2 and 3, as well, to take a stranglehold on their series.
Both Vegas after Holtby’s miracle save and Cleveland after Smith’s embarrassing meltdown still believed that they could recover and win their series. And surely there are teams that have recovered from that turning point moment.
Sometimes, though, teams take the momentum of that one instant that went their way and ride it all the way to championships. That’s something Alex Tuch of the Vegas Golden Knights and J.R. Smith of the Cleveland Cavaliers will remember for a long time.