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Kevin Durant Closes The Door On LeBron

CLEVELAND — After Golden State snatched what would’ve been a momentum-shifting win from the Cavs in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, Warriors forward Draymond Green revealed a prophetic word he’d shared with teammate Kevin Durant earlier in the season.

“To be honest with you, we don’t really need you that much in the regular season,” Green recalled telling Durant, who silenced the crowd with the biggest shot of his career — a 26-foot, go-ahead 3-pointer over the outstretched arm of LeBron James with just under a minute to play — in the 118-113 victory. “But you know when those NBA Finals come around we’re really going to need you to play big for us.”

When all’s said and done, and this club inevitably wraps up its second NBA title in three years, the degree to which the Warriors didn’t need to rely on Durant earlier this year will stand out; if only in contrast to the mileage James accumulated carrying the Cavs all season.

Durant was spectacular and will undoubtedly be named Finals MVP once the Dubs win a fourth game.1 His impressive showing here, largely against the best player of the past generation, figures to prompt conversation about whether we’re seeing a changing of the guard concerning which player deserves to be considered the best in the world.

We watched this movie play out for a third straight game on Wednesday night: LeBron being on fire for a half, then suddenly becoming less aggressive when he runs out of gas in the fourth quarter, while Durant saves his best for last.

POINTS FIELD GOAL %
PLAYER Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4 Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4
LeBron James 39 25 21 11 70% 71% 40% 36%
Kevin Durant 26 28 17 31 65 52 39 67
LeBron’s 4th-quarters lag in the 2017 Finals, Durant’s improve

Source: NBA

The pace in this matchup has played a key role in that dynamic — particularly for James. But the accumulation of minutes and miles on James’s legs this season — and over the past seven seasons, during his incredible Finals streak — probably hasn’t helped, either. This year alone, in which the 32-year-old averaged an NBA-high in minutes per game, James has run 47 miles more than the 28-year-old Durant,2 who missed just over a month’s worth of games during the regular season following an injury. (Golden State went 16-4 without him.)

It would be unfair to the Warriors, who figure to go down in NBA history as perhaps its greatest team, to suggest that fatigue alone is the deciding factor in what may be a four-game sweep. The Warriors have so much more talent, and defensive skill, than the Cavs do. But James — who was sensational, and finished with 39 points, 11 rebounds and 9 assists — having more burst in the fourth quarter Wednesday might have at least helped Cleveland hold onto that game. And a 2-1 series, with Game 4 at Quicken Loans Arena on Friday, would have been promising.

Warriors dominated with LeBron sitting

Recognizing the importance of Game 3, James got hardly any breathers. Of the game’s 48 minutes, he took a seat for a grand total of two minutes, 24 seconds. Yet in that span of rest, his Cavaliers were outscored 12-0, an enormous margin in a game decided by just five points.3

Almost all of the trouble stemmed from a lack of ball movement, starting with Kyrie Irving, who played a fabulous game with 38 points, but didn’t look good in this stretch.4 Cleveland had six offensive possessions without James on the floor; five of them featured one pass5 or no passes, while the other possession was this.

Meanwhile, the Cavs didn’t take advantage while the Warriors’ superstars sat. Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who made a handful of costly rotation choices in last year’s NBA Finals, trotted out lineups without Durant or Stephen Curry on Wednesday. (This is likely the biggest reason why the Warriors have struggled in second quarters this postseason relative to their dominance in the other three periods.) In fact, Kerr did this twice, for a total of five minutes, 34 seconds. Yet Cleveland didn’t create a real gap, only outscoring Golden State by three, 14-11, in that time.

Curry’s unexpected rebounding was critical

When you think about the NBA’s most gritty players, people like Green, Tony Allen and Patrick Beverley might come to mind. Curry? Not so much.

But the 6-foot-3-inch sharpshooter came up big in the trenches Wednesday, logging 13 rebounds,6 the most for a point guard in the NBA Finals since at least 1984, according to Basketball-Reference.com’s Play Index.7 Even more impressive: Five of those rebounds were offensive, and the Warriors ended up scoring seven points off those extra chances — a huge boost in a five-point victory.

To put Curry’s rebounding into context, consider that he had more total boards on Wednesday alone than ace rebounder Tristan Thompson — whom the Warriors have neutralized beautifully by getting bodies on him while the ball is in the air — has had in this entire series.

Curry doesn’t get quite enough credit for mixing it up to help his team win. Aside from defending pick and rolls a bit differently in this year’s finals, he’s also been arguably the NBA’s best off-ball screener, because of how much opponents sell out on the threat of his jumper, and how it opens up things for his teammates.

For one night, Curry’s offensive rebounds were just about as lethal as his 3-point shooting. And in part because of them, we may have a new NBA champion by tomorrow night.

 

Footnotes

  1. Even though Stephen Curry is almost averaging a triple-double in the Finals, which is crazy.

  2. This was the disparity heading into the NBA Finals, when combining both regular and postseason games.

  3. Yes, it’s only fair to point out that James was on the court for Golden State’s stunning 11-0 run to end the game over the final three-plus minutes of play.

  4. He also got a very poor 1-on-1 look against Klay Thompson that misfired just before Durant hit the go-ahead 3-pointer.

  5. Not counting outlet or inbound passes

  6. This was tied for a game-high, along with Kevin Love’s 13 boards.

  7. The Play Index only goes back to 1984 in some categories.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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