CLEVELAND — It wasn’t really the career postseason high 43 points he pumped in, or his mid-range shot that fell throughout the night, or even his 3-pointer taken from deep that finally put the Cleveland Cavaliers to sleep.
It was this: the "death stare". The cold expression on his face after drilling that 3 with 49 seconds left. The searing eyes, wrinkled nose and sinister frown. Maybe others in that situation would’ve let loose and shaken a fist, whooped it up, or at least cracked a smile. Because that was a big shot meant to be celebrated. And Draymond Green was jumping and screaming joyously in his face. But not Durant. That stare was a laser straight to the Cavaliers’ heart.
The "death stare" now goes right into the NBA postseason reaction vault, sharing space with Mario Elie’s two-fingered "kiss of death" in 1995, Michael Jordan’s "shrug" in the 1992 Finals and Shaquille O'Neal's "double-point" to the Lakers’ bench in the 2000 West finals.
All of those reactions -- more or less -- signaled the end of a series. And although the 2018 NBA Finals still needs another Golden State Warriors win to make it official, the "death stare" felt like a silent scream that said: That’s a wrap.
Durant says he was just playing it safe with his emotions, which made him the chillest guy on the court.
“Don’t get me wrong, every time I make a (big) shot in the NBA I get excited,” he said. “I just internalize a little bit as I get older … I knew the game wasn’t over. I’ve seen some crazy stuff happen in my years playing basketball, so anything can happen. I just try to wait until the buzzer goes off to even think about something else.”
Durant was solid on a night when the rest of the Warriors weren’t. He outscored the other four starters combined. He bailed out Stephen Curry, who missed nine straight 3-pointers just a game after setting The Finals record by making nine of them. Durant kept the Warriors in a game they never controlled until the last few suspenseful minutes.
It’s now 3-0 Warriors after winning 110-102, and if the Cavaliers aren’t battling enough, history says nobody has rallied from 0-3 in the postseason. The sweep is now in play, something that hasn’t happened since 2007 when, coincidently, LeBron James dragged a similarly nondescript group to the Finals -- only to meet a quick doom against Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, all in their prime.
If a sweep happens, it could almost certainly send LeBron out of town on a bullet train this summer as a free agent, in search of the help he’ll need if he ever plans to sip champagne in June again. Because, this is what he’s up against. One game, Curry goes nuts and sprays threes. Next game, Curry plunges into a deep 3-for-16 shooting freeze, Klay Thompson scores only 10 points ... and Durant rips off 43. What can one man do, even if he’s LeBron, and especially considering he turns 34 next season?
“This is the beauty of this team and the luxury of having multiple big-time scorers,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “There are going to be nights like that for all of them. We’ve got a lot of guys who can score and fill it up, and they lift each other up if one of them is having a tough night. It’s pretty nice, a pretty nice luxury.”
LeBron said: “That’s why they retooled this team, went out and got KD … if one of them has a bad game they have three or four guys who can pick up the load.”
Time is running out on James and Co., who again couldn’t find the necessary answers in a tight game. They labored well for 45 minutes, led by 13, enjoyed a rare moment when Curry couldn’t hit baskets -- only to crumble when it counted. The Cavs have only one closer, while the Warriors have at least three of them.
If Durant didn’t sign with the Warriors two summers ago, are they winning this game with Curry and Thompson laying bricks? Are they even in The Finals?
Durant was amazingly efficient, making 15 of 23 shots. But there was more to his game. The Warriors were repeatedly plastered on the boards all night by the Cavs, yet Durant prevented it from being worse and finished with 13 rebounds. He also had seven assists and therefore had his fingerprints on roughly half of Golden State’s 110 points. He threw a rope to Andre Iguodala for a dunk during the frantic final two minutes.
“That was amazing what he did out there,” said Kerr. “Some of those shots … I don’t think anybody in the world can hit those but him.”
The 3-pointer was taken from almost the exact spot on the floor, in the same building, in the same game (Game 3) as last year. That shot also put the Warriors up 3-0, and it is immortalized inside the Warriors’ training facility in Oakland. The play is depicted in a massive photographic blow-up plastered on a wall in the lobby that greets visitors as they step off the elevator.
“The one he made tonight was about four or five feet behind what he made last year,” said LeBron. “Last year he was up two, tonight they’re up three. But you tip your hat. I mean, that’s what he does. He’s a scorer. He’s an assassin and that was one of those assassin plays right there.”
I mean, it’s almost like playing against the Patriots. You can’t have mistakes. They’re not going to beat themselves. They rise to the occasion."
Durant is shooting 68 percent in the last two games, a contrast from the series opener when he seemed out of sorts. He had a few lapses in the Western Conference finals, too. He didn't let that rattle him and waited for his moment to place his stamp on this series -- and it finally arrived.
“We all feed off one another,” Curry said. “Tonight was not my night. It was his night. For the last two years I’ve been playing alongside Kevin Durant and he’s an amazing talent, amazing player. When you have belief in yourself, the moment is never too big for you. Supreme self-confidence.”
The Cavs are running out of ideas, counterpunches and adjustments. LeBron scored 33 points but shot 3-for-7 in the fourth quarter while showing signs of wear. He'll have one day of rest before Game 4 and has a twisted ankle suffered early in Game 3. Kevin Love finished with 20, but only five after halftime. The Cavs received a 15-point boost from Rodney Hood, who saw his first minutes of the series. But they’re still getting next to nothing from Kyle Korver (zero points) and just morsels from elsewhere.
The last shred of an advantage for the Cavs was their home postseason dominance (8-1 entering Game 3), which just popped. Plus, Iguodala is back -- giving the Warriors a full roster again -- and there are those four All-Stars standing in LeBron’s way, too.
“The margin for error is very low,” James said. “I mean, it’s almost like playing against the Patriots. You can’t have mistakes. They’re not going to beat themselves. They rise to the occasion. That’s what Golden State has done the last four years.”
Well, three out of the last four years, anyway.
When Curry can suffer from deep as he did for three-and-a-half quarters and then have the confidence to take and make his first 3-pointer -- a crucial one with three minutes left -- what more can the Warriors ask for?
It's an embarrassment of riches when one player can grab pole position for Finals MVP only to have one of his teammates snatch it away. It’s Curry’s team. No, it’s Durant’s. Back and forth, back and forth.
So the current flavor of the series is Durant because it was his turn. He was everything Wednesday that the Warriors knew and hoped he’d be when he joined an already stacked team. He seized Game 3, delivered a career game (all things considered) and put the Cavaliers in an impossible situation.
Durant is the reason why the Warriors are on the verge of winning their third title in four years, as good a run as any since Bill Russell's Celtics.
But one of his teammates might be the player who eventually clinches it. And Kevin Durant will display more enjoyment for that moment than he did for his.
“He was so stoned-face that somebody had to yell and show some emotion,” said Curry. “So me and Draymond took care of that.”
The "death stare" will not, evidently, catch on. But the habit of winning championships remains very much in play for the Warriors.
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