CLEVELAND -- It was the biggest moment of this very big game. The Golden State Warriors were up three points on the road against the Cleveland Cavaliers, less than a minute to play in Game 3 of the NBA Finals. Win this game and the series, for all intents and purposes, would be over. No team has ever come back from down 3-0 in the NBA Finals.
As the shot clock ticked down, Kevin Durant held the ball on the "C" in the Cavaliers logo near mid-court. With the shot clock at five, Durant crossed over just as Draymond Green set a pick on Rodney Hood. That was all the space he needed. From 35 feet away from the rim, Durant lifted up and -- silky smooth, with the confidence of a player who'd already netted 40 points -- . From the sideline, announcer Mike Breen made the call: "Kevin Durant, waaay outside … DELIVERS!"
It was the definition of a dagger. It ended the game, and likely the series, and perhaps LeBron James' second go-round with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
It was also the defining shot in what may be remembered as the defining game in Durant's career.
The box score told a big part of the story -- 43 points on only 23 shots, with 13 rebounds and seven assists.
But the rest of the story goes like this: On a night when the Cavaliers came out firing from the jump, playing with energy and desperation and racing out to a 12-point lead within the first six minutes and maintaining a double-digit lead deep into the second quarter, Durant was the glue who kept his team together. Durant made six threes on the night; the rest of the Warriors shot 3-of-17 from three.
"Holding Steph [Curry] to 11 points and Klay [Thompson] to 10, you would think you would win that game," an exasperated Tyronn Lue said afterward.
They did not. And it was because Durant wasn't just his best self on Wednesday night. He was his best self, and he played within the Warriors system. That's not something he did all through the Western Conference finals, or even in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Durant has played some inefficient basketball over the last two playoff series. He was always great, and he always got his numbers, but his greatness was not always the type of greatness that the Warriors needed. They didn't need Durant to be a superstar; they needed him to be a Warrior.
In Game 3, he was both.
"Steph was not making his shot, but Kevin got it rolling, so we just flipped it around and we had Steph set a couple screens for him," Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. "I just like the way he's attacking. He's not waiting around. He's attacking right away on the catch, and it's devastating to have to guard that."
"Devastating" is one way to describe it. "Impossible" is another. This is why the Warriors went out and got Kevin Durant two years ago. He is the greatest safety valve, the greatest luxury, that the NBA has ever seen.
"That's why we play the game," Klay Thompson said afterward. "When a guy like Kevin Durant is hitting these shots, it's a joy to watch. It's amazing to be a part of. That was a grind-it-out type of game. It wasn't pretty, but we got the job done."
What's amazing about these Warriors -- what's historic about these Warriors, and perhaps could make them go down as the greatest NBA dynasty of all time -- is how many different ways they can beat you, and how they can beat you when they're not at their best, or even close to their best.
Just listen to what the Cavaliers had to say about the margin for error when you play the Warriors:
"The margin for error is so thin and so little against them that in some cases you almost have to be perfect," Kevin Love said.
"It's almost like playing the [New England] Patriots: you can't have mistakes," LeBron James said. "They're not going to beat themselves. So when you're able to either force a miscue on them, you have to be able to capitalize and you have to be so in tuned and razor sharp and focused every single possession."
History will look back at this series as a blowout, assuming the Cavs don't do something that's never been done before and come back from being down 3-0. But calling it a blowout is not entirely accurate. If it weren't for the total breakdown in the final 36.4 seconds of regulation in Game 1, the Cavs would have won that game. If it weren't for Durant going on an absolute heater in Game 3, the Cavs would have won that game, too. We could easily be sitting at a flipped script where the Cavs are leading 2-1.
Instead, we got to see the perfect distillation of what makes these Warriors an all-time great team: Because even when their opponent shuts down several key players, even when their opponent comes out with more energy and determination, even when perhaps the best player of all time has yet another triple-double, the Warriors can still control a game and get the win.
And that's how we'll remember these Warriors: Even when they're not at their best, they are still the best, and by a pretty wide margin.
Durant didn't want to look at the game as his defining moment. One reason was because he believes he's still got a lot more basketball left in him, so to call a game in his age-29 season his "defining game" makes it sound like he's heading toward the downside of his career.
I asked him afterward if he was feeling the pressure of this game being on his shoulders when his teammates were struggling. He shrugged it off and said it didn't even enter his mind.
"I just tried to play hard defense, tried to rebound as best as I could," Durant said. "If my shots were there, I just take them patiently and with poise. I found some good spots, and my teammates did a great job of setting screens for me, setting me up. Coach did a great job of calling plays for me, and I just tried to come through and be aggressive, just to do something, you know?"
Sure, it sounds like an athlete cliché -- It was all about the team -- but there was a lot of truth in what Durant said. He never forced anything on Wednesday. You never felt that Durant craved having the ball in his hands, just that he made the most of the times he had the ball in his hands. And that's what Durant at his best looks like on these Warriors: Not a superstar, but a teammate who is capable of playing like a superstar. And Game 3 proved there's a big difference.