OAKLAND — Through two games, Kevin Durant is the early favorite to win Finals MVP: He leads the series in points and blocks, he leads the Warriors in rebounds, and his presence has strongly tilted the match-up in Golden State’s favor. There’s been no hesitation or subtlety to his game; on the contrary, Durant has dunked time and again, controlled the paint on defense, celebrated with chest pounds, and risen to the mental and physical challenges presented by LeBron James. Aided by his perfect fit on a ridiculously talented roster, Durant has played the most effective all-around basketball of his life in this series and mounted his strongest challenge yet to James’s status as basketball’s best player.
Durant is a major reason why Golden State scored another blowout victory on Sunday, defeating Cleveland 132-113 in Game 2. But, regardless of what James has said during this series, Durant isn’t the only reason the Cavaliers are heading home down 0-2 in the Finals for the second straight year.
After Game 1, James needed just two letters to explain the difference between the 2016 Warriors and the 2017 Warriors: “K.D.” It was an understandable reaction given Durant’s dunk parade and the fact that he makes James’s life so much more difficult on both ends. With Durant in the fold, James has a harder time hiding on defense and he must now contend with another All-Defensive caliber player when he’s conducting Cleveland’s attack. There’s also the steadying influence and boost that Durant’s natural scoring ability provides to Golden State’s offense. Every James-led run, it seems, is answered sooner or later by a Durant three-pointer, dunk or pull-up jumper.
James stuck to the same script after a Game 2 in which the eighth triple-double of his Finals career was canceled out by an eye-popping 33 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, three steals and five blocks from Durant. “You guys asked me ‘What’s the difference?’ and I told you,” James said. “They’re a different team [with Durant].”
The scariest part for Cleveland, however, is that Durant’s entry into this Finals showdown is only one element of Golden State’s improvement.
There were stretches of Game 2 in which it seemed like the Warriors (14-0) might finally lose their first game of the 2017 postseason. That sensation topped out in the first half, as James plunged deep into the paint at will and Stephen Curry made a series of increasingly careless turnovers. Like last year, Cleveland needs help to pull off this upset, and Curry briefly appeared willing to provide it by throwing passes into the stands and fumbling the ball out of bounds.
“There's an eight on the stat sheet that I need to correct when we go to Cleveland [for Game 3],” Curry said afterwards, devoting the first words out of his mouth to kicking himself over his turnovers. “The points that I gave up off turnovers in their building will electrify the crowd and their team.”
But Curry’s miscues wound up being a minor bump in the road rather than a streak-stopping pothole. A halftime speech from coach Steve Kerr, who returned to the bench for the first time since the Portland series, helped refocus Curry for the second half. In the decisive third quarter, Curry was everywhere, draining deep threes, grabbing offensive rebounds in traffic and shaking James memorably with an extended dribble sequence that saw him drive from the baseline out to the three-point line, and then back into the paint for a sneaky lay-up.
“Coach got on me at halftime about my body language and just trying to play with passion and play with joy,” Curry said. “The turnovers kind of got underneath my skin a little bit.” Rather than let his night be ruined by self-loathing, Curry finished with 32 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists to notch the first postseason triple-double of his career.
“I see two guys [Curry and Durant] who are more locked in than I've ever seen either one of them in my life,” Draymond Green said. “To me, it seemed like it's personal for both of them. You are talking about two of the greatest players that we got in this world locked in the way they are. That’s why we're up 2-0.”
Composure seems contagious for these Warriors, who infamously came undone in the 2016 Finals’ most pressure-packed moments. If one were to list Golden State’s biggest vulnerabilities, Green’s foul trouble and his potentially explosive reactions to foul trouble would rank alongside Curry’s sloppiness at the top. In Game 2, Green was plagued by whistles all night, picking up five fouls while logging 25 minutes, his fewest this postseason.
But Green didn’t make matters worse for himself and his team. Despite being called out by Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith on Saturday for repeatedly “kicking people in the nuts,” Green didn’t revert to his worst behavior when the calls went against him. He avoided technical fouls, flagrant fouls, confrontations and bulletin-board material, trusting Durant to hold down the backline defense in his absence. That self-control allowed Green to be a net-positive even though his night was cut short: his three three-pointers and six assists helped the Warriors’ offense keep clicking. By the end of the night, Golden State had scored more points in a Finals game than any team since the 1987 Lakers.
“You act like I'm just this troubled guy who's been in a bunch of trouble and can't control myself,” Green told a reporter, who inquired about his recent restraint. “Jesus Christ. … Going over the edge isn't going to win me a championship. I think I'm a pretty smart guy and I learned my lesson. I went over the edge before, fool me once. You can't fool me twice.”
While Curry is healthier and better equipped to play through his mindless moments, and Green looks well past his team-damaging meltdowns, Klay Thompson is proving to be as reliable as a slumping shooter gets. For much of this postseason, Thompson has rushed shots, forced shots and simply missed shots he normally makes. He’s also watched as the Durant/Curry tandem has truly taken off, a shared ascent that effectively marginalizes his own role. Thompson’s struggles prompted Kerr to compare him to “a baseball player hitting line drives at people,” and the Oracle Arena crowd has collectively tried to will in every shot he launches.
Thompson hasn’t pouted or asked for more touches, even as one rival player has speculated on social media about Thompson’s future with the Warriors. Instead, he’s committed himself defensively throughout the last two rounds. Game 1 saw Thompson guard Kevin Love in isolation post-ups and shadow Cleveland’s guards around the perimeter, and he was back in Game 2 with excellent energy. Kyrie Irving managed just 19 points on 23 shots, and Cleveland’s other guards and wings were non-factors on offense again.
That patience and diligence paid off on Sunday, when Thompson broke through to hit four three-pointers and score 22 points, his most since Game 3 against Portland in the first round. “That’s the difference right there, as you can see,” Irving said, identifying Thompson’s scoring as the Game 2 X-factor. “They beat us pretty bad in Game 1 and Klay comes out and has a decent game this game. We score more but Klay gets it going.”
Midway through the West finals, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich made a point to praise Golden State’s unselfishness on offense and consistency on defense, asserting that it was “disrespectful” to discuss the Warriors solely in terms of their Superteam talent.
This same line of thinking should apply to any claims that Durant is the only difference between this year’s Warriors and last year’s version. Curry is better this year: he’s moving more freely and he has more experience working through his poor stretches. Green is better this year: he’s playing Defensive Player of the Year quality defense, he’s knocking down his three-pointers shots, and he’s keeping himself on the court. Thompson is even arguably better this year: he’s asked to do less on offense, but he’s consistently winning his match-up and his willingness to take a backseat has helped the Warriors post better offensive and defensive efficiency numbers this postseason compared to last.
James rushed out of Oracle Arena on Sunday, eschewing his customary trip to the podium. During a brief locker-room interview, he told reporters he didn’t plan to lean too heavily on Cleveland’s experience being down 0-2 in last year’s Finals before Game 3 in Cleveland on Wednesday. “I’m not a past guy too much,” he said. “I’m more of a present guy.”
Well, here in the present, James and the Cavaliers have much more to worry about than only K.D.