CLEVELAND – As the Warriors have crept closer to the championship that barely eluded them last year, winning game after game to arrive at their current perfect 15-0 postseason mark, a resentment towards Kevin Durant’s arrival has arisen in some quarters. Those feelings, whether angst over Durant’s alleged disloyalty to Oklahoma City or frustration at Golden State’s seemingly unfair collection of talent, have occasionally been expressed in a way that downplays Durant’s role in his new team’s success.
Maybe Golden State could still win the title without him. Maybe not. But the Warriors defeated the Cavaliers 118-113 in Game 3 of the Finals on Wednesday because Durant drilled the biggest shot of his career, shining last in an instant classic featuring big nights from a long list of superstars. While Golden State’s new guy might have hitched a ride to a “juggernaut” with “the most firepower” LeBron James has ever faced, Durant’s closeout performance should mute for good any accusations that he is benefiting from a free ride to his first ring.
Cleveland stuck perfectly to its blueprint for stealing a win and making this series interesting. James poured in 39 points, Kyrie Irving added 38 points and J.R. Smith hit five three-pointers. The Cavaliers rode the energy in their home building to an early lead and finally strung together stops against the Warriors’ offense. Golden State played sloppy again, committing 18 turnovers, and had to survive major foul trouble for Draymond Green again.
In the final moments, though, it was Durant—an eager late-game shooter whose propensity for going it alone in the clutch ruffled feathers earlier this season—who led Golden State’s comeback and then sealed the win. The four-time scoring champ personally outscored Cleveland 7-0 in the game’s final three minutes, a run highlighted by his go-ahead three-pointer with 45 seconds remaining.
"He took over,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of Durant, who finished with 31 points (on 10-18 shooting), eight rebounds and four assists. “You can tell, he knows this is his moment. ... He senses this is his time."
With less than a minute remaining and Cleveland up by two, LeBron James passed to Kyle Korver in the left corner for a three. The shot rimmed off to Durant, who pushed the ball up the court immediately. The Cavaliers’ transition defense had suffered breakdowns all night, but this time there were four defenders back.
As Stephen Curry approached to set a screen and his other teammates spaced the court, Durant took advantage of a little extra space between himself and James, walking straight into a three-pointer that he launched from a full step beyond the line and over the four-time MVP who has loomed over him throughout his career.
“We know if we get it off the board and push, we're a dangerous team,” Durant said. “And I [saw James] backing up, and I just wanted to take that shot. I’m glad I was able to knock that down. I just tried to stay disciplined in my shot, hold my follow-through, and it went in.”
James, visibly tired down the stretch from playing 46 minutes, said he was focused on not fouling.
“I saw him getting ready to pull up,” James said. “He uses a rhythm dribble to get a good look, and when K.D. shoots, he falls forward, and I wanted to get a contest. The last thing I want to do is foul a jump shooter. … I just stayed there, high hands, contested, and he made it.”
For Durant, this was the type of cold-blooded, game-deciding shot that earned him the nickname “Easy Money Sniper,” but also the type of Heroball attempt that cost Golden State in a late-game loss to Cleveland on Christmas and famously drew Green’s ire during a January meltdown loss to Memphis.
The Warriors’ pass-heavy system and loaded roster have made Durant’s life easier all season, saving him from big minutes and double- and triple-teams, while setting him up for an endless stream of dunks, clean looks and one-on-one isolations. In Game 3, Durant benefited from 30 points from Klay Thompson and 26 points from Curry, and he was relatively fresh at the end because he logged five fewer minutes than James. And he paid back his new organization for that help and those advantages the best way he knew how: By trusting his instincts with the game in the balance and welcoming the criticism that was sure to come had he missed.
“He lives for those moments,” said Warriors forward Andre Iguodala. “That’s why they brought him here,” added Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue. “For those.”
Redemption for the Warriors and a first championship for Durant now sit just one win away, with Friday’s Game 4 looming as the possible closeout. Whether or not Golden State completes the NBA’s first perfect postseason, Durant has positioned himself as the clear Finals MVP favorite in a series that has seen James average a triple-double and sensational play from Curry.
That’s only possible because Durant has walked the tightrope between allowing the Warriors to show him a better, smarter way to play and retaining the superstar’s confidence and shot-making that attracted Golden State’s attention in the first place. The Warriors have molded Durant, supported him and set up him for the greatest success of his 10-year career. Yet Game 3 proved they haven’t fundamentally changed or diminished him, and that they’re not above letting him play the hero when the moment demands it.