For the second straight year, Game 3 of the NBA Finals will be remembered as the night Kevin Durant sucked all the air out of the Cavaliers’ season. Durant went from ultimate luxury to ultimate necessity for Golden State on Wednesday, leading the team to a 110–102 victory over Cleveland in spite of a poor shooting night for the Splash Brothers. LeBron James had his 10th career Finals triple double in the losing effort, and now the Cavs are one loss away from elimination.
Durant was spectacular in Game 3. The discourse around KD ever since he moved to the Bay has largely surrounded whether the game is too easy for him when he’s surrounded by three Hall-of-Famers. What Durant showed Wednesday is that he’s very capable of making the game easy for himself. The reigning Finals MVP scored 43 points, adding 13 rebounds and seven assists for good measure. Durant’s efficiency was comical—he finished the game with a 78.3% effective field-goal percentage, thanks in large part to his 6-of-9 shooting from three. Golden State needed every last bucket; Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combined to shoot 7-of-27 from the field, with Curry missing nine of his 10 three-point attempts.
Durant’s full repertoire was on display in Game 3. He scored in nearly every way imaginable. He pulled up from beyond the arc and hit repeatedly. He peppered the Cavs with jumpers from midrange or the top half of the paint, making contested shots look like layups. And when all else failed, he slithered his way to the rim for simple looks.
“Some of those shots, I don't think anybody in the world but him can hit them,” Steve Kerr said of Durant after the game, adding later, “Kevin was the story in the first half just keeping us in it. And Kevin was the story in the second half, closing it out.”
There are two plays that tell the story of Durant’s dominance in Game 3.
The first came toward the end of the first half. Durant had the ball at the top of the key, with Kevin Love switched onto him at the Warriors’ preference. Durant drove down toward the left block, with Love draped all over him. J.R. Smith was glued to Thompson in the left corner, while LeBron was forced to stick with Andre Iguodala as he lurked in the paint. The only defender in a position to help was Tristan Thompson, but as he slid into the paint, Durant rose up for a shot. With Love right in his grill, Durant swished the J. Love’s reaction—his body deflating, placing his hands on his head—was the human embodiment of what it’s like for opposing fans to watch the Warriors. You can do everything right, but Golden State’s talent will render it pointless. Durant is an incredible weapon. His teammates certainly make his life less difficult, but that doesn’t mean he’s not making outstanding plays on a consistent basis.
And then, in the final minute of the fourth quarter, Durant hit an absurdly deep pull-up three reminiscent of the dagger he hit to clinch Game 3 of the 2017 Finals. What were the Cavs to do? On the Warriors’ previous score, Cleveland decided to trap Durant off an Iguodala screen, and KD quickly passed to an open dunk for Iggy. With Durant’s unselfishness posing its own threat, the Cavs were forced to switch Smith onto him when Iguodala set a screen some 30 feet from the basket. Given the smallest bit of airspace, Durant pulled up and drilled the biggest shot of the night. His reaction was even more notable, in the sense that he didn’t react at all. The shot, like the entire game, came easy for Durant.
While Durant’s ability to bend the will of the game in his favor was perhaps LeBron-esque, James himself didn’t have a signature performance Wednesday. It sounds absurd to say, particularly with him posting a stat line of 33 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists, but LeBron was not at his best. James never quite put his stamp on Game 3. He shot 13-of-28 from the field, missing five of his six threes. He turned the ball over four times, and he’ll probably regret passing in a couple key situations down the stretch. The curse of expectations and heroic past performances colors the perception of every LeBron game. But the Warriors’ immense talent demands a superhuman effort from him every night. Anything short of that, and the margin of error when trying to steal a game becomes effectively zero.
Elsewhere, the Warriors received a lift from their role players. Iguodala didn’t look particularly spry in his 22 minutes, but he hit three of his four shots. Meanwhile, Shaun Livingston, Jordan Bell and JaVale McGee combined to shoot 13-of-17 from the field. Cleveland’s defense, a mess all year long, is obviously struggling to slow down the Warriors, often caught trying to employ several strategies in a single quarter. The Cavs are easily twisted into a pretzel by Golden State’s movement, and the result is constant open looks at or near the rim for the Dubs.
Cleveland received some solid if inconsequential performances from its supporting players. Love put up his third straight double double with 20 points and 13 rebounds. Rodney Hood emerged from carbonite to score 15 points in 26 minutes, but he was still a team-worst minus-12 in an eight-point loss. Ty Lue didn’t really have any other moves to make. Hood was clearly a better option than Jordan Clarkson, and he can’t do much about Kyle Korever and J.R. missing the majority of their threes.
Wednesday night was the exact reason why the Warriors signed Kevin Durant. With Curry and Thompson missing the looks they frequently feast on, Golden State was beatable. But Durant changes the calculus. He too is capable of winning a game by himself. It’s not quite the same as what James has done this postseason, but Durant did a hell of an impression in Game 3. As his supporting cast struggled, Durant rose to the occasion, reminding everyone that though Steph may be the engine, Durant is the second-best basketball player in the world. With Cleveland already scrambling to plug all the other holes in its leaky defense, Durant took full advantage.
"Kevin Durant is one of the best players I've ever played against, that this league has ever seen," James said after the game.
Sometimes, it’s that simple.