Monday December 26th, 2016

When Kevin Durant is really grooving, stepping into silky jumpers and storming towards the rim, so many things need to go wrong for the Warriors to lose. In a nightmarish final minute against the Cavaliers, so many things did.

Cleveland claimed a 109-108 victory at Quicken Loans Arena on Sunday, digging out of a 14-point fourth-quarter hole and a three-point deficit in the final 45 seconds thanks to a toxic cocktail the Warriors were hoping to never taste again: One scoop of over-eagerness, another of indecision, a dash of controversial refereeing, and a healthy dose of Kyrie Irving heroics.

Despite Durant’s best efforts in one of the most memorable Christmas Day clashes in recent history, Golden State found itself in the last place it wanted to be six months after its Finals collapse: ruing another nail-biting defeat that came caked in self-inflicted wounds.

“We’re mad, man,” Klay Thompson told reporters afterwards. “The way we lost that game, we gave them a gift.”

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Up 108-105 with less than a minute to play, Andre Iguodala pulled down a long defensive rebound and spotted Durant with no defenders in front of him. Rather than hitting Durant in stride for an open court dunk that would have been the dagger, or simply hold the ball to milk the clock, Iguodala flipped a pass that the former MVP mishandled, allowing Irving to track back for a critical steal. A possession saved was two points earned for the Cavaliers, as Irving quickly split through three defenders for an uncontested layup.

Its lead down to one, Golden State swung to the opposite extreme, pounding its way through an overly deliberate possession as Durant struggled to free himself from Richard Jefferson’s physical defense. As the shot clock ticked down under five seconds, Draymond Green tried to bail out the Warriors by attacking hard to set up a drive-and-kick. The action came too late, though, with Golden State committing a shot clock violation before Thompson could unleash a go-ahead corner three.

Cleveland’s final possession commenced with a little help from the officials, who reviewed Thompson’s three-pointer to see if he had gotten it off in time. That decision—a reasonable one even though it seemed clear that Thompson’s shot was late—gave the Cavaliers, who were out of time outs, a dead ball to plan their attack. In the end, it wasn’t the most complicated plan: Irving attacked Thompson hard off the dribble as Cleveland’s shooters spread the court around him, spinning back into a tough turnaround jumper. The shot nestled through with 3.4 seconds left, giving Irving—who hit a title-winning three-pointer in Game 7 of the Finals—his second consecutive game-winner against the Warriors and 25 points on the night.

Much like Golden State’s two previous possessions, its final offensive stand came unraveled right from the start. Durant received the inbounds pass in the near corner and took one dribble towards the elbow before stumbling to the court. Jefferson, who had shadowed him so well on the previous possession, seemed to step on Durant’s foot and give him a bump to the waist, but neither produced a whistle. With the clock almost gone and no other recourse, Durant had to heave a desperation three-pointer while lying on his back, as Jefferson and the home crowd began celebrating.

“I didn’t get a shot up,” Durant told reporters afterwards. “I was trying to make a move and I fell. And I didn’t fall on my own.”  

That no-call was one of multiple refereeing decisions that went against the Warriors, who saw Green sent to the bench early in the first quarter on a questionable second foul call. Green was hit with a technical foul on his way off the court, while LeBron James avoided a technical foul while hanging on the rim following a late fourth-quarter dunk. There was also the helpful “extra timeout” with the video review.

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These Warriors have experience beating themselves in big games and they know better than anyone that they shouldn’t be left hoping for a whistle on the road on the game’s final play.

“I take a lot of blame for … turning the ball over down the stretch,” Green said. “We could have had easy baskets. We'll be better with that. … If we take care of our business, it never gets to that point.”

Indeed, this Christmas Day defeat generated Groundhog Day quotes and, in turn, déjà vu questions. Can Draymond keep it together? (He had six turnovers to go with his technical foul.) Where’s Steph? (He managed just 15 points and was held in check all night.) Will the new-look frontline be able to hold up on the glass? (Cleveland pounded its way to 18 offensive rebounds.)

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Durant was supposed to be the answer to those queries, and he nearly was, performing like an MVP frontrunner (36 points and 15 rebounds) before Cleveland yanked the rug out from under him in those final seconds. So close to fulfilling expectations as the superweapon that would shift the power balance between these Superteams back in Golden State’s favor, Durant instead slid back into his own familiar disappointment, losing to James for the fifth straight time and falling to 4-18 lifetime in their head-to-head matchups.

The NBA’s two title favorites will go their separate ways now, knowing they were one stronger pass from Iguodala, one quicker drive from Green, one surer step from Durant or one errant shot from Irving away from a much different story. But everything that mattered late broke against the Warriors, leaving them the same in December as they were in June: empty-handed.  

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