Three minutes left. Down by six. On the road. If there was ever a situation where the Golden State Warriors needed Kevin Durant on their stacked roster, it was the end of Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Wednesday. After LeBron James found J.R. Smith for a swished 3-pointer, the crazed Cleveland Cavaliers fans in Quicken Loans Arena erupted and Golden State could have collapsed under the weight of the moment.
James had 39 points, Kyrie Irving had 38 and the Warriors had been way too sloppy, turning the ball over 18 times. In the second half, Cleveland slowed the pace, allowing its two stars to hunt the matchups they wanted and make brilliant one-on-one plays. The intensity of the game, combined with the Cavaliers having all the momentum down the stretch, was reminiscent of last year's deciding game. The ending, however, couldn't have been more different, thanks largely to Durant.
Golden State finished the game on an 11-0 run, including a 7-0 spurt from its 7-foot superstar. Durant made it a two-point game by taking Tristan Thompson off the dribble and lofting a shot over him:
Then he gave the Warriors a one-point lead by hitting a pull-up 3 over James:
These shots are unblockable. He is simply too tall, long and talented. On a different team, the Cavaliers might have trapped Durant in order to get the ball out of his hands. On this superteam, that is no longer an appealing option.
"He took over," Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. "You can tell he knows this is his moment. He's been an amazing player in this league for a long time and I think he senses this is his time, his moment, his team. And when I say his team I mean it's not literally just his team, it's we've got a group around him that can help him and create space for him with the shooting and the playmaking and I think he's having the time of his life out there."
Durant had a team-high 31 points on 10-for-18 shooting, with eight rebounds and four assists in the Stephen Curry made a timely layup and two late free throws, Irving had a layup rim out, Andre Iguodala contested James on a fadeaway, Klay Thompson forced an awful shot from Irving -- but it would be equally inaccurate to think they would have won this particular game without him. This was Cleveland doing almost everything right, playing as hard as you'd hope champions would in (essentially) a do-or-die situation. While Golden State famously shuns hero ball, it is surely thankful that Durant put on his cape.. It would be inaccurate to say the Warriors took a 3-0 lead in the series because of Durant alone --
"Obviously KD made some huge plays down the stretch," Kerr said. "I thought Klay's defense on Kyrie was amazing. And overall it was just an incredibly tough, resilient performance. It wasn't our smartest game that we've played all year, but it was maybe our toughest in terms of our ability to just hang in there. Nothing was really going our way, but we were still there and we just had to kind of stay with it, and I thought our guys did a really good job of that."
In an interview with ESPN Radio, Curry called it the best win the Warriors have had in their last three incredible seasons. If you measure win quality by degree of difficulty, then he's probably right. Overall they didn't play as well as they did in the first two games of this series, but, led by Durant, they kept their composure when it mattered. That's exactly what they struggled with at this time last year, and there were questions about what would happen when Golden State was challenged to the point where excellence no longer looked easy.
For the first time in the playoffs, the Warriors did find themselves in a truly tough situation. The Cavs put them there, and Durant bailed them out. This was the plan when they signed him.
"I told him earlier in the year," Warriors forward Draymond Green said on NBA TV. "I said, 'Man, it's cool that you're here, but we really don't need you for the regular season, bro. We're counting on you, gonna need you for the Finals.' And he stepped up big and made plays for us."