CLEVELAND -- The extended season, like the terms of their long-fought relationship, was on the verge of ending. LeBron James, the defending champion, was at peace with whatever was going to come next. Kevin Durant, one more game away from his first championship, was not.
“I'm not even thinking about that,” Durant said Thursday when asked if he had been playing the best basketball of his life during these NBA Finals.
His Golden State Warriors held a 3-0 lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers in The Finals and were one win from completing the NBA's first perfect postseason (16-0). On the eve of what promised to be his happiest day, Durant was focused on not being happy. Let him earn the celebration before he celebrated. He had traveled too far and learned too many hard lessons to be answering questions that he wasn’t ready to answer.
“I didn’t envision anything but just being around good people and getting better every single day,” he said when asked if this outcome was everything he had envisioned as a free agent last summer.
“I don't want to get too far off of the task at hand,” he said of his last-minute 3-pointer Wednesday night that had provided the Warriors with their comeback Game 3 win.
“This can turn if we come out there thinking we won the championship already. We haven't,” he insisted. “They're still champions, and we got to go take it.”
To see James and Durant each taking his turn at the interview podium Thursday was equivalent to watching the before and the after. James, 32, had won the first of his three titles in his ninth NBA season. Durant, 28, has followed a similar path: He left his original franchise in order to fulfill his championship potential with more talented teammates. For that decision he had been criticized all season -- as James had been after his 2010 move to Miami -- and now Durant was having the last laugh. Even though he was in no mood for laughing. Not yet, anyway.
“With all the success that he's gotten throughout his career, I've always been proud of him and I'm always excited to see him grow as a player,” James said of his friend and rival. “I can definitely appreciate the simple fact of him either reshaping his game or just sacrificing maybe some shots here, sacrificing having the ball in his hands all the time. It works for their team. I mean, who wouldn't want to sacrifice playing on a Golden State team or a San Antonio team or a Cleveland team when you know the ultimate result is you can actually compete for a championship?”
For how many years had the two of them been competing at small forward from their opposite ends of the spectrum?
Durant was taller and leaner, James was more powerful and versatile. Most important of all was their contrast in styles: LeBron as the playmaker, and Kevin as the finisher.
But that was all being upended now.
The dream that was coming true at the end of Durant’s 10th season was a repudiation of its long build-up. As James looked ahead to Game 4 here on Friday (9 ET, ABC), it was with the understanding that he was being beaten at his own game.
Beating LeBron at his own game
As Game 3 wore on Wednesday night, Golden State coach Steve Kerr was urging his players to absorb the punches as surely as if he had been in Muhammad Ali’s corner against George Foreman in Zaire all those decades ago.
James was scoring 39 points, Cavs point guard Kyrie Irving was adding 38, and the best response that Kerr could advise for his Warriors was to continue moving the ball. It was basketball’s version of the rope-a-dope.
“We just kept telling the guys, ‘They're going to get tired. Stay in front of them. Force them into outside shots if you can. Fatigue will play a role,’ ” Kerr explained. “When you get guys playing 45, 44 minutes, basically attacking one-on-one the whole game, you hope eventually it's going to take its toll.”
One-on-one play had been the staple for Durant throughout his career. For James, the ideal has always been teamwork. Whether in high school, AAU or the NBA, James had been able to score at will. His preference, however, had always been to create for and elevate the play of his teammates by sharing the ball, not dominating it.
In The 2015 Finals, James had to go one-on-one against the Warriors after season-ending injuries to Irving (in the NBA Finals) and Kevin Love (first round) left him with no other options. He had averaged 35.8 points and 45.7 minutes in that series while attempting 196 shots over the six games.
On Wednesday, everything was running through him again. James (15 of 27 from the field with nine assists) was having to beat his defender in order to either score or create for his teammates. Most of Irving’s 29 shots also required individual moves to create space.
This time, however, there were no injuries to account for the strategy. Apart from James, Irving and catch-and-shoot guard J.R. Smith (5 of 10 for his 16 points), the other Cavaliers were going 4-of-24 from the field. They couldn’t carry their own weight, as revealed by the 10-0 Golden State run while James rested for the final 1:49 of the opening quarter.
“Kyrie (44 minutes) and LeBron (46) had it going,” Kerr said. “But that's pretty taxing to go one-on-one the whole game.”
The secret to Golden State’s upending 11-0 run over the game’s final three minutes was no secret to James. The Warriors were moving the ball -- assisting for 29 of their 40 field goals overall -- while the Cavaliers were too often having to create by the dribble. It was as if the qualities that were transforming Durant into an imminent NBA champion had been hijacked from James.
“He has grown in terms of his ability to play with the other four guys, with our movement and our spacing and our flow,” Kerr said of Durant. “Over the course of the year he's gotten better and better with that. Just understanding when to cut, when to screen, when to come off a screen -- and instead of just being on the ball and making a play, making a play without the ball. That's a big part of what we do.”
During Durant’s eight seasons alongside Russell Westbrook on the Oklahoma City Thunder, sharing had been the contentious issue. Westbrook, the point guard, had been uncomfortable playing off the ball. Instead of passing freely in order to shift opposing defenses from side to side, Westbrook and Durant had been locked into the futile one-on-one isolation style that was never enough to beat the Warriors, Spurs or LeBron’s Miami Heat.
Durant had moved to Golden State because he wanted to share the ball and become part of something greater. He wanted what LeBron had.
“Same for any player -- great player, role player -- you're better the better your teammates are,” Kerr said. “That's the beauty of the game. That's what makes our team special. It's not just Steph and K.D.; it's (Shaun) Livingston, (Andre) Iguodala, Draymond (Green). It's the number of playmakers. I say it all the time, guys just make it easier on each other.”
The Warriors looked fresher at the end of the game -- even though Durant, Curry and Klay Thompson had each played 39 or more minutes -- because they were making the game easier for one another. It was something LeBron had seen coming as soon as Durant moved to Oakland.
“I said it after we won the Eastern Conference finals that we're getting ready for a juggernaut,” James said. “I played against some great teams, but I don't think no team has had this type of firepower. So even when you're playing well, you got to play like A-plus-plus, because they're going to make runs and they're going to make shots and they got guys that's going to make plays.”
Durant moves on to find Finals success
“I don't think that our careers are the same as far as changing teams,” said James when asked about Durant’s move to Golden State. “Their team was already kind of put together, and you just implement a guy that's ready to sacrifice, a great talent, a guy that's willing to do whatever it takes to help the team win. That team, they knew what they were about. For me, when I left here to go to Miami, we brought in eight or nine guys, and we had to build something. And when I came back here, we built something again.”
The comparisons between them went back to 2012, when James won his first championship in Miami against the younger Thunder of Durant. At that time the star power of LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh created fears throughout the league of a dynasty in the making.
Now the same predictions are being made around Durant’s talented Warriors, because Curry had invited Durant to Oakland in the same way that Wade had accommodated James.
“The whole thing was how fun it would be -- because of the style of play, because of the individual talents,” Kerr said of his recruiting pitch to Durant last summer. “None of these guys are ball-dominant players. They all love playing off the ball, cutting, moving, passing. They fit like a hand in a glove.”
Teams win championships because the star plugs in without losing his true nature. So it was in the final minute of Game 3. The Cavaliers’ lead was down to two points as James fed a pass to Kyle Korver in the corner. When Korver’s 3-pointer hit iron, James knew -- and didn’t much care -- that he would be second-guessed for choosing to pass instead of taking on the double-team.
“If I could have the play over again, I would come off a three screen situation,” James was saying the next day. “Draymond would switch on me with five fouls. I would get him leaning. I would drive left. I would see K.D. step up. I would see Stephen Curry drop on Kevin. And I would see Kyle Korver in the corner, one of the greatest 3-point shooters in this league's history, and give him an opportunity in the short corner.”
In other words, said James, “I would do the same exact thing.”
That play was crucial because it had been sandwiched by a pair of one-on-one moves by Durant. He had attacked Tristan Thompson for a midrange pullup with 1:15 left, and then, following Korver’s miss, Durant had pulled up at the 3-point line to drain the game-winner over James. Someone asked Durant if that shot would someday be viewed as his Hall-of-Fame moment.
“I don't think about years from now,” Durant was insisting on Thursday. “Try not to think too far past today. We have to practice today. We had a good film session. Guys getting shots up right now. So that's only thing I'm worried about.”
Finals glory awaits 'hungry' Warriors
Durant is with Golden State because after his Thunder squandered a 3-1 lead to the Warriors in the 2016 West finals, he realized his need to marry with their egalitarian style of play.
In turn, his Warriors are drilling Cleveland in response to their own collapse from a 3-1 lead in The 2016 NBA Finals against the Cavaliers. Throughout this make-amends season they have been devoted to defense, whereas the Cavaliers haven’t been able to muster up the enthusiasm. The yearlong complacency of the defending champions is showing now.
“They’re a hungry group,” said James of the Warriors. “When you can combine talent, you can combine unselfishness, and then you can combine guys that play hard, that's going to result in some really good things.”
When the door is finally slammed shut on his Cavaliers, there surely will be instant speculation of another free-agent move by James in 2018. He has, after all, accomplished his mission of bringing a championship to Cleveland. He is also being reminded by Durant that winning The Finals transcends all else.
Just weeks ago, the recently retired Paul Pierce was publicly criticizing Durant for taking the easy path to the championship. In light of Durant’s recent performances, Pierce has been referring to him as the NBA’s “best player” and hailing the dawn of the Durant era. This turnabout in perspective must feel familiar to James, who was named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated one season after he had been vilified for his own move to form a “super team.”
“I feel pretty good where my game is right now,” James said when asked how much longer he would like to play. “But I don't know. I haven't really thought about how long I want to stay around. I definitely want to compete. I want to compete for championships every year, and so we'll see what happens.”
Durant, for his part, had no interest in looking ahead. As he waited for Game 4 and this long-sought opportunity to fulfill his own highest expectations, he was obsessed with maintaining the narrowest field of vision.
“Make sure I get my shots up, make sure I work on the small parts of my game, my touch, my jump shot, one-dribble pull-ups,” Durant said. “Go through practice hard, and then work out after practice. That's the only thing I worry about at this point.”
It was as if something was happening to him that he had always wanted but could not explain. Even now, as he was transforming into his own version of LeBron James, Kevin Durant didn’t want to so much as glance in the mirror until the change was complete.
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