SALT LAKE CITY — They’re in different time zones and work on opposite days and haven’t shared the same court — yet — in the playoffs but everyone can clearly see the Warriors and Cavaliers are currently locked in a contest against each other.
Last year’s NBA Finalists are on a collision course to meet again in June because they’re a combined 14-0 this post-season and in position to sweep through the conference semis. The Warriors are doing it a bit uglier, and once again had to break a sweat Saturday trying to keep up with the LeBrons. But do you know how tricky it is to shoot straight against the Jazz when one eye is cocked in the direction of Cleveland?
Of course, neither team will say they’re trying to match or top each other, because that’s a serious violation of Rule No. 1 in the Athlete’s Manual: Never admit you’re looking ahead even when it’s evident that nobody in your immediate path is equipped to avoid getting squashed.
The Cavs are in steamroll mode, removing all suspense so far, and meanwhile against Utah, the Warriors are noticeably meeker. Maybe the Jazz are proving peskier than what passes for elite teams in the Eastern Conference. Or perhaps the Warriors are a bit bored. Anyway, Golden State’s 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven after a 102-91 Game 3 win doesn’t accurately reflect how surprisingly ragged it’s been at times for the Dubs.
It does, however, accurately reflect how Kevin Durant, the New Guy, is perhaps the best player on a team that went to two straight Finals without him.
While the rest of the Warriors suffered through their shooting funks, Durant bailed them out in Game 3 with 38 points, his playoff high as a Warrior, and did work on the boards with 13 rebounds. He was also active on defense, helping the Warriors hold Utah to 41 second-half points. Durant is a certified shot-maker from multiple spots on the floor and such was the case in a game where Steph Curry began 0-for-6 from deep and Klay Thompson finished with one basket.
The Splat Brothers haven’t looked particularly sharp all postseason but when Durant is available to be the emergency rip cord, does it matter? No, apparently not.
“I wanted to come out and be aggressive, and I could tell we needed it,” said Durant.
At one point during his misery, Curry sort of surrendered and kept feeding the ball to Durant, because as Curry said: “Myself, the other 19,000 people in the arena and everyone else watching on TV saw what I saw. It was an easy decision to try and set a screen for him, get him in the right spot and he does the rest. We’re smart enough basketball players to know what’s going on at that moment, to let a talented scorer do what he does.”
One of the selling points for Durant for signing with the Warriors last summer was the refreshing unselfishness of the main stars. For all of his desire to shoot high-risk 3s and those two MVP awards he owns, Curry lacks ball-hog DNA. At this stage, he has nothing to prove, anyway, and same for Thompson and Draymond Green. They’re not threatened by Durant.
And vice versa. As Durant said: “Every playoff game is different. Those shots (for me) might not be there the next game. That’s the beauty of basketball.”
Durant had that same green-light luxury in Oklahoma City -- to an extent, anyway. Strangely enough, there were many times when he took fewer shots than his point guard, Russell Westbrook. Though he never complained, and if anything lashed out at critics who felt Westbrook was being selfish, Durant quickly became at ease with the system at Golden State. His was a seamless inclusion without any painful or awkward stretches. And welcomes the lack of urgency to score 30 a night.
He even missed a pair of games in the first round against the Blazers and the Warriors didn’t suffer. But as the stakes and opponents rise as they progress through the playoff minefield, the Warriors are comforted to know that Durant is healthy and willing, if necessary, to become the lead singer at any time.
Not trying to sound arrogant, Durant said: “I’ve been doing this for so long. Every day I get out of bed I feel I can score.”
It’s very possible, based on the evidence so far, that the Warriors won’t know the true extent of Durant’s value unless — until? — they meet the Cavs in the NBA Finals. Given how the teams went the seven-game limit last summer, Durant could be the swing vote.
He has spoken openly about his desire to win a championship, about the pain caused by losing to LeBron James and the Heat six years ago, and the greater pain caused by an inability to return to the Finals. That discomfort led him to the Warriors, in a severe case of the rich-getting-richer, and if that stacks the deck on Golden State’s favor, Durant responds with a shrug. That’s not his problem, though it might be yours if you’re bothered by it.
The next order of business for the Warriors comes Monday in Game 4, where they’ll find a home team that’s wobbling. Utah hasn’t been able to beat an inconsistent Warriors in three games, and now they’ll see a determined Warriors trying to finish the job and go home to rest for the Western Conference finals.
The Jazz could also be without starting point guard George Hill again with a bum toe; meanwhile, there are serious signs that playoff hero Joe Johnson is beginning to wear (seven points in Game 3). They’re also 1-3 at home in the playoffs. Solid team. Gordon Hayward is showing to be a nice enough player. Compared to Golden State, however, the experience and depth and star power is lacking.
Meanwhile: How long will those shots skim off the rim for Curry (6 for 20 Saturday), who’s shooting 46 percent overall, well below his customary 50 percent? And what about Thompson, who is below 40 percent for the entire playoffs? At some point they’ll start connecting and Golden State will remove all doubt for 48 minutes. Another plus: Green just got his first technical Saturday. It took him seven games. That’s progress.
As he walked to the bench, Green began teasing the Jazz fans, saying: “I just reminded them that they were down 2-0.”
It’s now three. The Warriors are making shots when they need to, and turning their defense up a few notches, and protecting the ball (no second-half turnovers in Game 3, only seven overall). They’re doing whatever’s necessary.
“We wanted to come out and take a commanding lead,” said Durant, at the moment serving as the commanding leader of the Warriors.
Honestly? Deep down, they wanted to keep pace with you-know-who. Unbeaten and mostly unscratched, the Warriors are doing their part to keep hope alive. If you polled independent basketball fans, there’s only one Finals matchup they’d like to see.
The score is now Golden State/Cleveland 14, Everyone In Their Way 0. It could be insurmountable.
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