- There may be no stopping Kevin Durant's Warriors. Golden State looked untouchable with KD leading the way in Game 1, and LeBron James and Co. are short on options for adjustments.
OAKLAND — For seven years now, the pre-Finals discourse has been driven by one question more than any other: How will the West’s best defend LeBron James? Who guards him on the ball and who protects the rim? Do they send double teams? Do they dare him to shoot? How many players can take turns trying to wear him down? How many can hold up physically and mentally against him over the course of a seven-game series?
These Finals are just one game old, but already it’s fair to wonder whether everyone should have been fixated on a different question: How will Cleveland go about defending Kevin Durant?
There were plenty of reasons to doubt, or at least wonder about, Durant’s impact on this series. James has compiled a dominant advantage in their head-to-head match-ups throughout their careers. Durant faced greater scrutiny and pressure than his teammates due to his free-agency decision last summer and the fact that he hasn’t won a title. He played a central role in Golden State’s Christmas Day collapse, and he sparked the biggest controversy of the Warriors’ season by being overly self-reliant during a late-game meltdown against Memphis in January. He’s also playing on a team whose offense is led by two-time MVP Stephen Curry. Given these varying factors, it was possible to envision Durant looking psyched-out, nervous, over-eager, or extraneous against Cleveland.
Instead, Durant looked like a confident, focused, decisive and efficient match-up nightmare in leading the Warriors to a 113-91 victory over the Cavaliers in Game 1 on Thursday. He scored a game-high 38 points to go with eight rebounds and eight assists, posting a Finals stat line matched only by James, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal since 1984.
The scariest part for Cleveland is that there’s no clear path to limiting his effectiveness, no quick-fix adjustment to make his life significantly more difficult.
Durant punished the Cavaliers from everywhere and in every way, knocking down threes, racing to the rim in transition, rocking into step-back jumpers, and driving hard when isolated against mismatches. He quickly attacked Cleveland in switch scenarios, blowing by Kevin Love to draw a foul and passing over the top of Kyrie Irving for easy hoops. He dunked and dunked and dunked some more, especially on the break as the Cavaliers ceded his drives in hopes of limiting the Warriors’ shooters.
“I felt like in transition they were running out to the three-point line,” Durant said. “We’ve got the best three-point shooters in the world on our team, so obviously teams want to take away our three-pointer. I just tried to be aggressive to the rim and loosen them up a bit.”
This was Durant in realized ideal form, a do-everything scorer turned loose in the open court and against overmatched defenders rather than bottled up by his own over-dribbling or by the limitations of teammates past. For Golden State, this was the vision when Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut and others were sacrificed to accommodate Durant’s arrival. How does Cleveland, or any opponent, handle Golden State when its small forward is a certified scoring machine rather than a mere release valve?
“KD,” James said simply, when asked what stood out to him about the first game of his third straight Finals matchup against Golden State. “You take one of the best teams that [the NBA] had ever assembled last year, that we saw in the regular season and in the postseason, and then in the off-season you add a high-powered offensive talent like that and a great basketball IQ like that. That's what stands out.”
Indeed, James is feeling the effects of Durant’s entry into this rivalry more than anyone. Forced to play huge minutes and carry a massive scoring and playmaking role for Cleveland’s offense, James no longer has the luxury of buying meaningful rest on defense. Stashing him on Barnes and utilizing him primarily as a roving help defender is not a viable option when Durant is running hot. Switching on screens is more difficult when it’s Durant, rather than Barnes, driving at big men or pulling up over small guards.
Late in the 2016 Finals, Curry, Klay Thompson, Barnes and Andre Iguodala all failed to consistently pierce Cleveland’s interior defense. Now, protecting the rim as a team is a much more difficult proposition when it’s the long-armed and poised Durant swooping to the hoop over weakside helping efforts from non-traditional centers like Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson
“He can just go get a bucket,” Green said of Durant. “That’s one of the things that we need, a guy who can go get a bucket and get to the foul line. … We’re going to seek him out, get him the ball and guys got to defend him.”
But which guys, exactly? Cleveland’s much-maligned defense probably took more heat than it deserved this season, given its improved showing in the East playoffs, but this still isn’t a roster that’s overflowing with impact defenders. Durant can play above Cleveland’s starting guards and he’s too quick for Love and Thompson.
The Cavaliers’ bench was ineffective overall in Game 1, and the only Cleveland reserve with the proper combination of size and experience to make Durant work is Richard Jefferson. Still, that’s a huge ask for a 36-year-old forward who contemplated retirement last June. While Cleveland’s second unit has distinguished itself in the postseason thanks to its collective shooting and floor-spacing, there isn’t a designated Durant-stopper in the bunch. There isn’t much in the way of extra rim-protection, either, as the only usable center is Channing Frye, a shooting specialist whose defensive shortcomings often limit his minutes.
Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue is therefore left with a list of undesirable options: Task James with shadowing Durant for as many minutes as possible, bump up Jefferson’s minutes and responsibility, turn loose J.R. Smith or Iman Shumpert to hound him on the dribble, send help on Durant to channel more shots towards Green and cold-shooting Thompson, or force Durant to beat the defense with his jumper rather than with his drive. Of course, Golden State has ready counters to these approaches, usually in the form of more offense from Curry, who chipped in 28 points and 10 assists in Game 1.
Before any of those potential strategies can take root, though, Cleveland must do a significantly better job of controlling the pace and limiting its turnovers. The Cavaliers committed 20 turnovers and allowed 27 fast-break points, many of which came via Durant’s open-court highlights. “You know how scary things can be, especially when that 7-footer is coming at you full speed with his ball-handling ability and shooters spread across,” said Iguodala. “It’s pick your poison. He did an awesome job at that tonight.”
Sounder offensive execution and more diligent team defense from Cleveland should make Durant’s life more difficult in Sunday’s Game 2, but that’s not saying much. He got what he wanted, where and when he wanted it, in Game 1. Although the many threats posed by James rightfully set the terms of discussion as the Finals approached, the havoc wreaked by Durant will now dictate this series’ first round of adjustments.