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  • Kevin Durant sits on the brink of the NBA Finals again, but this time couldn't be more different than last year's trip to the conference finals.
By Ben Golliver
May 21, 2017

SAN ANTONIO — When Kevin Durant last found himself here, on the brink of the NBA Finals and a long-awaited rematch with LeBron James, he was in the middle of an utter frenzy. The Chesapeake Energy Arena crowd had unabashedly cheered his Thunder and heckled Draymond Green, and the assembled media contingent spent the post-game podium session trying to wrap its mind around the sudden stakes. Were the 73-win Warriors really going to be sent packing before their rematch with the Cavaliers? Was Stephen Curry’s unanimous MVP campaign about to go up in smoke?

There was no such electricity on Saturday night, no spinning wheels and no plot twists. Like last year, when Oklahoma City took a 3–1 series lead over Golden State with a blowout home victory, Durant is now within one win of the Finals, thanks to a 120–108 Game 3 victory over the Spurs. Yes, the All-Star forward is back in the same place he was a year ago, but the surrounding circumstances couldn’t be more different.

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Saturday opened with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich noting that the media lacked energy before the game, and it closed with Curry saying the same thing afterwards. In between, the Warriors gradually wiped the floor with the Spurs, who played gamely without Kawhi Leonard but lacked the talent, depth and perimeter shooting to keep up for 48 minutes. The AT&T Center crowd, reliably raucous, began filing out midway through the fourth quarter, sent packing by a sensational third-quarter stretch from Durant that effectively killed off San Antonio’s upset bid.

It wasn’t that nothing had happened: JaVale McGee had posted one of the most prolific scoring outbursts of his postseason career, Klay Thompson had pulled himself out of a shooting slump, David Lee had suffered a season-ending knee injury, LaMarcus Aldridge had struggled to get his offense going again, and Manu Ginobili had turned in a vintage performance that included a perfectly-executed nutmeg.

It was just that Durant’s decision to join the Warriors and Leonard’s ankle injury had combined to render meaningless all of those subplots.

Ronald Martinez via Getty

The last time Durant was one win from the Finals, he was still the underdog. The last time Durant was one win from the Finals, the Warriors came back from the dead. The last time Durant was one win from the Finals, Thompson delivered a record-setting, season-saving shooting performance in Game 6. The last time Durant was one win from the Finals, he and Russell Westbrook struggled to generate and convert good looks late in games. The last time Durant was one win from the Finals, he never got the last win, instead plunging into an off-season that saw him make a decision that has sapped much of the tension from this postseason.

This time, by contrast, Durant and the Warriors are overwhelming favorites. “For us to win [Game 4] we have to play at a 10 and they have to play at a 7,” Ginobili admitted, before saying twice that he was prepared to shake Golden State’s hand and congratulate them in the event of a defeat.

This time, the Spurs won’t be coming back from the dead. Not when Popovich is forced to make do without Leonard, Tony Parker and now Lee. Not when the remaining stragglers are failing to protect the rim from McGee dunks and unable to slow down Golden State’s three-point onslaught.  

This time, Durant need not worry about being outgunned or outlasted. His July 4 decision to sign with Golden State guaranteed that he would be one of many options in a relentless offense, that Curry and Thompson would be there if he faltered, and that he wouldn’t be stuck taking 30+ shots and logging 40+ minutes like he did during Oklahoma City’s 2016 collapse.

Game 3 perfectly crystallized the ongoing debate over Durant’s decision, simultaneously validating his desire to play for a team capable of delivering his first title and validating those voices who worry about what that means for the rest of the league. As Durant piled in 19 of his game-high 33 points in the third quarter, he made the Spurs look increasingly hopeless. He backed down Patty Mills for an easy turnaround. He crossed over the seldom-used Davis Bertans for a jumper. He drained a corner three. He slipped through the defense for a lob. And he needed just 19 shots and 38 minutes to post a +25 and claim a breezy win. “It’s very smooth,” Curry said of Durant’s burst scoring. “The run he had in the third was a clinic of scoring the basketball.”

But the Warriors were already clinical before they had Durant. Now they’re somewhere well beyond that, running up a perfect 11–0 mark and a +16.5 point differential in the playoffs. The Spurs will need something approaching a miracle to avoid a sweep on Monday, and they already seemed resigned to their fate. “Our competitiveness was great,” Popovich said, avoiding the bombast he used the day after Game 1 and opting not to challenge his team like he did after Game 2. “Every time you look up you’re playing against four All-Stars. … It’s a hell of a team.”

If this series is remembered at all, it will be for what could have been had Leonard stayed healthy and had San Antonio come close to maintaining its strong start to Game 1. The rest has been a one-sided blur, another round of blowouts to file alongside Golden State’s sweeps of Portland and Utah and Cleveland’s 10-0 blitz through Indiana, Toronto and Boston.

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“The fans always want to see a tight game, they want to see a buzzer-beater every game,” Durant said. “But it’s not like that sometimes. … You have your years where you have great playoff series, four or five Game 7s. And some years you have what you see this playoffs. As players, you want to go out there and win by as much as possible and play as great as you can.”

With his desire to win by any means necessary directly colliding with the viewing public’s desire for late-game drama and extended series, Durant then decided to issue an ultimatum to the grumblers. “If you don’t like it,” he said bluntly, “don’t watch it.”

Durant is on solid ground betting that basketball fans will continue to tune in for his step-back jumpers, his thundering dunks and his inevitable showdown with James. After all, he’s never been utilized more effectively, and James has never been a bigger, more imposing target.

But Game 3 should have been a moment of pure triumph with the promise of more, a chance to make up for last year’s collapse. That just wasn’t the case. Instead of savoring a full-circle sense of closure, an ever-so-slightly edgy Durant somehow found himself daring people to turn off the television.

The scene was a stark reminder that the last time Durant was one win from the Finals, there were no grumblers bemoaning the league’s lack of competitive balance and there certainly was no need for an ultimatum.  

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