CLEVELAND — Kevin Durant’s daggers shared the same confidence, the same rhythm dribble, the same shoulder shake, the same unblockable release point, the same pure follow-through, the same audacity, the same spot on the court, the same subdued celebration, and the same silent crowd. The two shots were so similar—same building, same teams, same series, same game, same quarter, same minute, and nearly the same second—that they were immediately linked and will live on forever as twins.
One year ago, almost to the day, Durant rose up over LeBron James to fire in a go-ahead three-pointer and give the Warriors a commanding 3–0 lead over the Cavaliers in the 2017 Finals. It was, quite clearly, the shot of his life: the 2014 MVP had lived in James’s shadow for nearly a decade, he had changed teams to improve his chances at besting his rival, and he had finally done it.
Everything about that three-pointer was stunning: That Durant had pulled up playground-style rather than run the offense in such a close game; that he had delivered in the clutch after so many previous postseason heartbreaks; that he had been entrusted to take such an important shot even though he was Golden State’s new guy; and that he that he was one win away from claiming a title he had been chasing for a decade.
Durant did it again on Wednesday, draining a deep three-pointer over J.R. Smith to close out a 110–102 victory and give the Warriors a 3-0 lead over the Cavaliers in the Finals. This time, no one should have been taken aback. The nine-time All-Star forward had already proven he could deliver a Finals-altering shot the previous year, but more importantly: He was playing the best game of his life.
There have been times to harshly critique Durant in these playoffs: He forced shots and struggled to read Houston’s defense in the Western Conference finals, and he fell asleep on the boards in Game 1 of the Finals. Those shortcomings vanished in Game 3, as Durant tallied a postseason career-high 43 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists to outduel James and take the undisputed lead as the 2018 Finals MVP favorite.
“I'm not done playing basketball yet, so I don't really look at these as defining moments,” Durant said, doing his best to avoid a premature coronation. “I don't want to act like this is the end of the road. I just try to stay in the zone of trying to win the game.”
Durant mastered all aspects in Game 3, threading pass after pass to beat the defense, seizing rebounds in traffic, and playing high-energy defense. He weathered Cleveland’s emotional opening push, and methodically carried Golden State’s offense through the worst shooting game of Stephen Curry’s postseason career.
Unlike in the Rockets series, Durant smoothly shifted into takeover mode, hitting 15 of his 29 shots, including six three-pointers. There was no overthinking. In fact, very little thinking at all. Durant seemed unbothered by defenders and untroubled by pressure. He shot over James, Smith, Jeff Green, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr., Kevin Love, Kyle Korver. It didn’t matter. He forced switches and attacked mismatches, but on this night, everybody was a mismatch.
“Some of those shots, I don't think anybody in the world can hit those but him,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “He was incredible. Kevin was the story in the first half, just keeping us in the game. And then he was the story in the second half as well, closing it out.”
With Golden State down one and four minutes left, Durant stopped on a dime going left, burying a double-pump pull-up jumper over Love, who clutched his head with both hands in disbelief.
Durant wasn’t satisfied; he was hunting. When Curry pulled down a defensive rebound on the next possession, Durant demanded the ball, clapping his hands repeatedly until his fellow MVP relented. As the clock ticked down further in a one-possession game, Klay Thompson received the ball in the open court, only to find Durant close behind pleading to take possession.
“Supreme self-confidence,” Curry said of Durant’s late-game play. “He works hard at his craft. He's ready for those moments. When you have that belief in yourself, the moment is never too big for you. He would live with the result knowing how much work he's put into it. That's what superstars do.”
Up three with less than a minute to play, Durant milked the shot clock down under five. There was no doubt that he would shoot, no doubt where he wanted to shoot from on the court. He skillfully maneuvered slightly left of center, within a few steps of where he had so memorably raised up over James last year. Ducking behind an Andre Iguodala screen, Durant cradled his dribble in his left hand before pulling quickly into his shooting motion, his arms on puppet strings.
Smith tried to close the gap, but he was too late and too short. James looked away from the hoop as the shot swished through, and Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue reflexively called timeout. Both men knew Durant had done it again; the whole building knew it.
“No, that wasn't the same shot,” James said, making sure to be a stickler for details. “The one he made tonight was about four or five feet behind the one he made last year. That's what he does. He’s an assassin, and that was one of those assassin plays right there. He's one of the best players that I've ever played against, that this league has ever seen.”
Last year, Durant’s three-pointer swished through with 45.3 seconds left in Game 3. This year, there were 49.8 seconds left. Afterwards, he insisted that he hadn’t intentionally delivered a carbon copy of his 2017 dagger. Both times, though, the shots doomed the Cavaliers.
“It was like déjà vu seeing him hit that shot again,” Love said. “Defenses try to plan for him. But when you're 7–feet and you're shooting a hesi pull-up on the left wing from 27 feet, that's pretty tough to guard. Even when you know it's coming. He’s playing downhill and he's out there dancing with the ball. That pull-up is tough to stop because he can shoot right over you.”
While Durant allowed himself a snarl in 2017, this time he blankly stared, without expression, towards the crowd. His body language didn’t convey relief, exuberance, or even satisfaction. Certainly not astonishment. Durant reacted like he expected to make it.
“Don't get me wrong, every time I make a shot in the NBA I get excited,” Durant said. “I just internalize it a little bit as I get older a little bit more than I did as a younger player. I was definitely excited.”
As Cleveland retreated to its bench, Durant was mobbed by Curry and Draymond Green, who had both helped recruit him to Golden State in 2016. “He was so stone-faced that somebody had to yell and show some emotion,” Curry said. “Me and Draymond took care of that.”
Green, who had snapped at Durant over defensive assignments during the Houston series, was so elated in the shot’s aftermath that he copped to losing control of his mouth. “It was almost like I was cussing [Durant] out, but I was so happy,” he said. “I was yelling the wrong thing. That was a huge shot. He took that from about 38 feet out. Just to put a dagger in them like that, it was just high emotion.”
Golden State can clinch its third title in four years—and the first NBA Finals sweep since 2007—with a Game 4 win on Friday. If Durant turns in another signature performance, he could join James, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal as the only back-to-back Finals MVP winners of the 21st century. That would make for an awfully tidy two seasons in Golden State: two clutch shots, two titles, two Finals MVP trophies.
James was on to something, though, when he sought to highlight the minute distinctions in Durant’s two clutch shots. Yes, the 2017 shot was attempted from just behind the three-point line while the 2018 shot was taken from further way. Yes, Golden State was trailing in 2017 and leading in 2018.
But the defining difference between Durant’s twin daggers is this: The first came as a surprise, but the second did not. Where validation was once needed, verified greatness now exists.