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Kevin Durant Is Golden State’s Terrifying Plan B

CLEVELAND — We witnessed how quickly everything can change in the finals during Game 1, arguably one of the more bizarre, topsy-turvy finishes in NBA Finals history. And in case you needed a reminder of the swiftness with which a narrative can change, consider this: Two-time league MVP Stephen Curry, who up until Wednesday night was the odds-on favorite to be named the most valuable player of the 2018 NBA Finals, may now be a long shot to win the honor, even though the Warriors are in a great position to sweep the series.

With about eight minutes left in the final quarter of a game that would all but determine whether this was truly a competitive series or merely a foregone conclusion, Curry misfired from 26 feet out. The attempt marked his 10th-straight miss — tied for the second-longest shot-making drought of Curry’s career, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group1 — and left him a dismal 1-of-14 on the night.

Yet for all of Curry’s struggles, and pedestrian shooting nights from Klay Thompson and Draymond Green on the road, Golden State still had a 92-90 lead on the Cavs at that point. And Kevin Durant — who’d finish with a game-high 43 points, 13 boards and one lost shoe — was the reason. Doing exactly what he was brought in to do, Durant connected on a dagger from 33 feet out to seal Game 3 with just under a minute to play, very likely ending any hope of a Cavs’ title.

This is the beauty of this team and the luxury we have of having multiple big-time scorers. There’s going to be [bad shooting] nights like this for all of them,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr, referring to Curry’s 3-for-16 finish.2 “We’ve got a lot of guys who can score and fill it up, and they lift each other up if one is having a tough night. It’s a pretty nice luxury as a coach, for sure.”

That luxury is the one that so many NBA fans feared when Durant shocked the basketball world by signing on to play for the Warriors: that Golden State would have too wide a margin for error by adding Durant onto the core of a team that had already won 73 games the season before.

This isn’t to say that the club is unbeatable, necessarily. After all, the Warriors just survived a seven-game series with the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference finals, a round that Houston might have won had it not been for an ill-timed Chris Paul hamstring injury or an epic drought from 3-point range.

But Durant is the team’s back-up generator, an elite scoring force that kicks in when Curry, the team’s main power supply, is momentarily disrupted. Even as Curry struggled, Kerr and the Warriors still made good use of him by occasionally having him set a quick screen for Durant, which sometimes prompted LeBron James to switch off. On this play, Durant ends up with an easy shot over Cavaliers guard George Hill instead.

The margin of error is very low. You can’t — I mean, it’s almost like playing the Patriots. You can’t have mistakes. They’re not going to beat themselves,” said James, the Cavs superstar who finished with a “quiet” 33-point, 11-assist, 10-rebound triple-double but walked away with a seventh finals loss in eight tries against Golden State since the Warriors acquired Durant.

“When you’re able to force a miscue on them, you have to be able to capitalize and you have to be so in tuned, razor sharp and focused every single possession. You can’t have miscommunication. You can’t have flaws,” continued James, whose team beat Golden State in the NBA Finals in 2016, the season before Durant signed there. “You can’t have ‘my faults’ or ‘my bads’ or things like that, because they’re going to make you pay. When they make you pay, it’s a 3-0, 6-0 or 9-0 run, and it comes in bunches. The room for error, you just can’t have it.”

Wednesday night felt reminiscent of Game 3 of last year’s finals — particularly the cold-blooded, game-sealing triple that Durant drilled with nearly the same amount of time remaining in the game, again over the outstretched arm of a helpless Cavaliers defender. Much like last year, Durant’s otherworldly performance was enough to neutralize, if not outdo, Cleveland’s superhuman star on a night when other factors would have threatened Golden State’s grip on the series.

Aside from overcoming the lackluster shooting from Curry, the Warriors managed to win despite a productive night from Kevin Love (20 points on just 13 shots) and a legitimately good showing from Rodney Hood, who went from being out of the rotation entirely to scoring more (15 points) off the bench Wednesday than he had logged in a game since early April.

Yet while the Cavs were happy to get production out of Hood — and finally bench the slumping Jordan Clarkson, who’d been awful — the Warriors were getting contributions from multiple players. Forward Andre Iguodala was back from injury, and despite looking rusty at times, he chipped in defensively on James and finished the contest a +14, tied for the second-highest plus-minus, just behind Durant’s +15. JaVale McGee, Shaun Livingston and Jordan Bell were all solid in limited roles of 17 minutes or less each and shot a combined 13-of-17 from the field.

And to add insult to injury, the Warriors went after JR Smith — whose monumental brain freeze in Game 1 earned him a standing ovation from Golden State fans in Game 2 — incessantly on defense. Smith has always struggled when defending away from the ball, and the Warriors bludgeoned his inability to sink into the paint after passing Curry off to Love after a switch. Golden State found countless open looks as a result of Smith’s on-court confusion defensively.

In any case, whenever this series ends, in a fifth or six game or even in a sweep on Friday, we’ll hear more about Smith’s blunder in Game 1 and how the events surrounding it might have changed the complexion of the series had they played out differently. Given how good the Warriors are, and all the weapons they possess, it’s difficult to argue otherwise. There simply is little to no room for error against this ballclub, perhaps in a way that we’ve never seen before.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

CORRECTION (June 7, 2018, 11:30 a.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly said Cleveland’s Game 3 loss in the 2018 NBA Finals was the eighth finals loss by LeBron James to Golden State in nine tries since the Warriors acquired Kevin Durant in 2016. It was the seventh finals loss in eight tries.

Footnotes

  1. One shy of the 11 consecutive shots he missed against the Pelicans back on March 20, 2015.

  2. Curry hit two shots, including a key triple, in the final minutes.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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