One way, maybe the only way, for an in-his-prime former MVP to validate a season in which he joined a 73-win team is to remind the world what made him so good in the first place. Kevin Durant made sure we won’t forget again any time soon.
Durant was a marvel in the Finals. He scored 39 points in a 129-120 Game 5 closeout win to give the Golden State Warriors their second title in three seasons. For the series, he averaged 35.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 blocks and 1 steal on 70 true shooting percentage. But in a year in which behemoth statlines have been common — and in a series in which LeBron James averaged a triple double — Durant’s effect on the series was even greater than those numbers suggest. He insinuated himself into every facet of the game, and dominated.
As they have all series, the pivotal moments of Game 5 belonged to Durant. During a second-quarter stretch of seven minutes when the Warriors took control of the game, Durant scored 11 points with three 3-pointers, two rebounds and an assist to Stephen Curry on a 3-point play. In the fourth quarter, with the Cavaliers pressing their way back into the game, Durant delivered the finishing blow, scoring 11 in the 24-13 run that put Cleveland away for good and ended any hopes of a miracle comeback.
The second quarter run was a stroke of good fortune. Durant appeared to foul James on a fast-break dunk early in the second quarter, but wasn’t called for it. It would have been his third foul of the game, and avoiding that sort of foul trouble with 10 minutes to go before halftime allowed him to remain in the game.
But it wasn’t simply that Durant scored in such important moments, it was how he did it. For long stretches of Game 5, the Warriors looked as they do at their worst, which is to say like a drunk guy playing as the Warriors in NBA2K. The whirring Rube Goldberg offense grinds down and becomes a tangle of bad, rushed shots and bad, haphazard defense. In last season’s Finals, it was enough to do them in. But Durant thrives in the muck.
KD was 12 of 15 on contested shots in Game 5, and 45 of 78 for the series. Durant’s overall efficiency was through the roof in the Finals, as it was all season, but it was his shot-making that set him apart. And it wasn’t merely Oklahoma City-era isolations — Durant moved off the ball, coming off of screens, flashing to the hoop and establishing in the post. He used his size to find mismatches all over the floor. Put another way, Durant played Warrior ball. The Cleveland defense did its best to stay with him, but when a nearly 7-foot-tall small forward catches and shoots just 5 feet from the rim, it’s a better shot for him than for just about any other player in the league. And for Durant, that remains true out to 28 feet and beyond.
It was that same length that allowed Durant to frustrate the Cavs near the basket all series. LeBron restored a few points to his field goal percentage on drives thanks to a flurry of made baskets to close Game 5, but Durant frustrated him with single coverage much of the series. Overall, he allowed just 47.8 percent shooting at the rim on plays he defended. He was so smothering that he eventually became a deterrent: When Kevin Love would catch the ball in good position against him, he would take a few half-hearted post dribbles and throw the ball back out. Better to reset the offense than to try KD.
Durant became the third player to win NBA Finals MVP in his first season with a team, following Moses Malone with the Philadelphia 76ers and Magic Johnson during his rookie season with the Los Angeles Lakers. He and Curry combined to form one of the best pairs in Finals history. But the breadth of Durant’s accomplishments this series can be appreciated only by acknowledging what it means that the Warriors truly needed Durant.
Golden State won 73 games in the 2015-16 season, yes, and they have All-NBA talent all over the court. But as the last three games of this series showed, the margins are still razor-fine against the Cavaliers. If one or two shots fell differently in Game 3, and one or two calls went another way in Game 5, Cleveland could just as easily be taking a 3-2 lead back to Quicken Loans Arena. It didn’t happen. And the fundamental reason why it didn’t is that every time the series or game or quarter seemed to be slipping away, Durant was there to reel it back in. He was the port in the storm. And for a tempest like Golden State, that’s the most valuable thing in the world.
LeBron needs defensive help.
By nearly any measurement, LeBron was masterful in these NBA Finals. He was efficient from everywhere, hitting 63 percent of his 2-point shots, and an impressive 39 percent of his 3-point tries. He played big, grabbing a series-best 12 boards per game. And the 32-year-old facilitated, logging an average of 10 assists a game.
But over the course of the series, we repeatedly saw that this Warriors team was too talented and too deep for James alone to beat them1. At times, it almost seemed as if letting the Cleveland superstar work himself to the bone might have been Golden State’s plan.
James, who logged the most minutes of any player this series while at times playing at a breakneck pace he’d never experienced during the postseason, drove 14 more times than anyone else. And unlike the last two years, when he checked Draymond Green or Harrison Barnes, James was often responsible for stopping Durant, the player most likely to someday supplant him as the world’s best all-around talent. This was asking a lot considering James, who led the NBA in minutes per game this season, had run 47 miles more than Durant in the lead-up to the Finals.
A cursory look at the Cavs’ offense-heavy roster highlights why James was often tasked with Durant. The team was lacking wing players with the necessary length and athleticism to check him and didn’t have much choice at times but to use LeBron in that role — even though it likely contributed to James’s fourth-quarter numbers fading at the beginning of the series.
So, the key this summer for Cleveland, aside from figuring out general manager David Griffin’s future, will be for the Cavs to find a couple defenders who have the length and ability to challenge scorers like Durant and Klay Thompson. Iman Shumpert was one of their better options this time, but, at 6-foot-5, he gives up at least a few inches to both players. (The Cavs, with limited options, even gave swingman Richard Jefferson — who turns 37 next week — a crack at Durant after he apparently begged coach Tyronn Lue about such an opportunity for months.)
James and Kyrie Irving were phenomenal from an offensive standpoint. But the fact that Cleveland managed to score 113 points or more in four of the five games in the Finals, yet still lose in a gentleman’s sweep, highlights the problem is not offense.
Golden State won the game in the second quarter.
There were a couple of turning points in Monday’s clincher, but momentum first began shifting during the second quarter, when the Cavaliers held a 41-33 edge before things went off the rails for them. As Cleveland was mired in a drought, Golden State swung with a haymaker to go on a 21-2 run. The Cavs spent the rest of the night trying to play catch-up.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the run was that Lue, the Cavs coach, opted against calling a second timeout and allowed the Warriors’ hot streak to continue.
Timeouts are particularly helpful for Cleveland, which scores following its timeouts more frequently than any other team in the NBA, according to Synergy Sports. Lue called for a break just six points into the Warriors’ run, following an Andre Iguodala dunk in transition.
Sure enough, after that breather, the Cavs got a layup from Tristan Thompson to seemingly stem the tide.
But then the Dubs stayed in rhythm after that, reeling off another 15 consecutive points, and taking a 54-43 lead before Lue finally stopped play again. (Cleveland scored immediately after that second timeout as well, on a J.R. Smith jumper.)
Lue later blamed the stretch on turnovers and poor shot selection, which led to Warriors’ transition opportunities. But the delay in calling a second timeout was somewhat similar to instances in Games 2 and 3, where Golden State went on game-altering runs without the Cavs taking timeouts to stop the bleeding2.
There are reasons coaches don’t burn multiple timeouts in a short span of time. Brisk, uptempo games like these might require a coach to save them for when his players — or even just a single player, like James — need a quick breather. Other times, coaches may just try to hold off on calling one because a TV timeout is on the horizon.
In any case, allowing the Warriors to get in that sort of groove — at home, no less — was dangerous. To the Cavaliers’ credit, they did manage to make a game of it again late, drawing within three points early in the fourth quarter. But later on in the final quarter, Cleveland looked exhausted; perhaps from the uphill battle to get back into the game. Golden State coach Steve Kerr then unleashed his Death Lineup3, later on in the fourth, and by then, it was too late, with Cavs missing defensive assignments all over the court that would help cement the Warriors’ championship.
Read more: The Warriors Duped The NBA