It should come to no one’s surprise that, once again, we all got it wrong again.
Kevin Durant’s alliance with the Golden State Warriors was not bandwagon jumping, someone taking the easy route to a championship. It wasn’t gross excess, a 73-win team piling on the rest of the league. It wasn’t overkill, producing a dull Finals that no one watched.
What it was, was necessary.
Golden State needed Kevin Durant to get back onto the basketball mountaintop. The Warriors would not have beaten the Cleveland Cavaliers in the third installmentof the Golden State-Cleveland trilogywithout him. They would not have been able to conquer LeBron James, again displaying his basketball hegemony by averaging a triple-double in the five-game series, without KD’s prodigious talents.
The Warriors had to get a killer to beat a killer.
And Durant slayed in The Finals, his Finals MVP numbers (35.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, 5.4 assists) cartoonish. After his dominant 2017 postseason, only Michael Jordan (33.4 ppg), Allen Iverson (29.7 ppg) and Jerry West (29.1 ppg) have a higher playoff scoring average than Durant’s 28.8 ppg. That was what was required to turn back James and Kyrie Irving.
“I told somebody that in the stands tonight,” Warriors General Manager Bob Myers said in the champagne-soaked Warriors locker room after the final buzzer. “If this isn’t proof that (Durant) is necessary for us to win … a lot of people looked at this like it was gravy. It was not that. This is like meat and potatoes. You saw what he was for our team. And that Cavs team, that was championship effort. They did not quit. They made us take that game.”
And the inverse was true as well. Durant needed the Warriors in order to vanquish James, who had dominated him the majority of the time when their careers overlapped. When Durant was on the Oklahoma City Thunder, he always looked cowed by James, whether he was in Cleveland or Miami at a given point in time. Frankly, he looked intimidated, aware that James stood solidly in his way as the best player in the game. But that wasn’t true, either.
You ever play bourre? You gotta have a bunch of trump cards to win, right? Well, in OKC, he didn’t have the trump cards. And here, he does. Put it this way: I wouldn’t have been as confident up 3-1 in Oklahoma City as I was here.”
Durant had a great Thunder teammate in Russell Westbrook, who burned to win as he did. But the Thunder never came up with another talent as good as James Harden, traded away when OKC’s ownership wanted to stay out of the luxury tax in 2011. (The terrible irony was that the Thunder wound up paying tax anyway, without Harden.) Both Scott Brooks and Billy Donovan tried to develop other players to help lighten the load, but no one has ever replaced Harden’s playmaking.
Durant had to own some of the failures, too. He didn’t play well in the pivotal Game 6 of the 2016 Western Conference finals, when the Thunder had a 3-2 lead over the Warriors and played the most important game in franchise history at home. But no one other than Westbrook consistently picked him up, either.
“You ever play bourre?,” one of Durant’s crew asked Monday, and yes, you have. “You gotta have a bunch of trump cards to win, right? Well, in OKC, he didn’t have the trump cards. And here, he does. Put it this way: I wouldn’t have been as confident up 3-1 in Oklahoma City as I was here.”
A healthy Stephen Curry, flying all over the court again, diming up the Cavs, moving all over the floor to beat double teams and overplays, hurling his 6-foot-3 body in the paint throughout The Finals to grab vital rebounds, bows a man’s back. A determined Klay Thompson, sporadic offensively in The Finals but a demon on defense -- wringing every bit of energy out of Irving as Irving rained runners and floaters on him -- gives you faith.
A voluble and unsuspended Draymond Green, averaging a double-double in The Finals, poking the LeBron bear all the while, makes you believe. Your assorted Andre Iguodalas and Shaun Livingstons and David Wests, secure in themselves and in their roles, keep the party going. And having coach Steve Kerr back on the bench, even as he dealt with the severe pain that has racked his body the last two years, calms you and everyone else down.
“It started when Steve Kerr came in here and asked a guy like Andre Iguodala, who could start for 29 other teams, to come off the bench,” assistant coach Mike Brown said. “Andre said yes, no problem, and he fulfilled that role in a way no one else could. Once that happened, there’s not a single person on this coaching staff, in management, on this roster, that can say anything about any move that Steve makes.”
The Warriors were great without Durant. They were already better, most nights, than 28 other teams. But with him, they were able to conquer that 29th team that had bedeviled them in 2016, and may well have done so again this year if not for that meeting in the Hamptons last July.
Curry had to be secure enough in his own skin to be willing to cede to the Alpha status on the Warriors to Durant. As I said last week: the phrase you no longer hear when people talk about the Dubs is “Splash Brothers,” as in Curry and Thompson. Their combined excellence shooting and scoring gave the Warriors their identity as a team. They were, and are, the best shooting backcourt ever.
Curry is a two-time Kia MVP winner and the first unanimous one in league history. He would have been well within his rights to insist that Golden State continue to shape its roster around him. Instead, he stepped to the side. It wasn’t that he shrunk, but he gave Durant room to grow. He knew how rugged it got for him last June, bumped and banged when he tried to come off pindowns, swarmed when he got dribble handoffs, with the Cavs daring Harrison Barnes to make jumpers. And Barnes didn’t make nearly enough of them.
Durant made 18 of 38 3-pointers (47.4 percent) against Cleveland.
“We needed him, we needed every single person on this team to get the job done,” Curry said on the way to his zillionth post-Finals interview. “We gave up a lot to get KD, but the way he played this Finals is vindication for his whole career.”
Durant was immediately captivated by the Bay and the potential it offered off the floor via the vast Silicon Valley entrepreneurial community. He has made fast friendships with the likes of Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’ widow, and has big plans for his own YouTube channel in the near future, with episodic and scripted shows down the road and other branded content. But all that wouldn’t matter if Golden State hadn’t beaten back James.
Among the truly obsessed, avoiding losing is more important, even, than winning (“it’s a sad way to live,” Myers said, his laughter more sardonic than therapeutic). Golden State’s collapse last year launched a thousand memes, but it also sapped the joy with which the Warriors had played for two years.
The Warriors still are happy warriors, but they played with an edge against the Cavs, Durant’s verbal square-off with James indicative.
“You learn a lot more from losing than winning, and so I think we learned a lot last year,” Myers said. “I don’t know. It wasn’t easy in ’14-’15, but last year … we go into every arena. We hear the ‘3-1’ stuff. You try to ignore it, but you hear it. And, you know what? I say Cleveland beat us. And so you have to take your medicine. Those situations, when you feel that pain, you want to avoid that at all costs. You want to put a team together that feels the same way, with character like that, who will do anything it takes to win.”
So David West gave up potential millions in free agency, the same way he walked away from $12 million on the Indiana Pacers two years ago to sign with the San Antonio Spurs, to play out of position, for the minimum, in the Bay. At 36, he didn’t have too many training camps left in him.
“You realize, as players, you don’t get years back,” West said. “As much as you say, ‘well, I can keep playing,’ you’re not going to get the year back. As those years start to (add up), you get past year eight, year 10, you start sniffing it, and you’re like, man, I don’t need a reset in year 12 or year 13. You start to appreciate the opportunity. For a couple of years, I couldn’t watch The Finals in Indy, because we were right there, and I felt like we still should have been playing. Watched it, maybe, two years ago, and I thought, I’ve got to figure out a way to get in that mix -- just to experience it.”
So West let loose in the second quarter of Game 5, when it looked like Cleveland was taking control of the game, and the game kind of stabilized, and all of a sudden, here came Durant, stepping into three ridiculous 3-pointers like he was playing P-I-G in the backyard, and the Warriors went on one of their euthanizing runs, this one 27-4, to take over the game.
Of course, Cleveland came back in the second half, showing its heart. But every time, Durant pushed the Cavs back. His game, his series, his playoffs. His season. And there was only one way the Season of Durant could end that would justify what he did on the Fourth of July.
There would be no more talk about his failings, his taking the easy way out -- because beating LeBron James in The Finals is anything but easy, no matter what the haters say. Let loose after holding his tongue, Durant went to Las Vegas over the weekend for the Ward-Kovalev fight and got back on Twitter, virtually taunting those who’d had his name in their mouths for a year.
That came later, though. Right now, Durant is walking back into the Warriors’ dank, wet, and finally quiet locker room, his media obligations finally done and burdens finally laid down.
“Dude,” I said to him. “This wasn’t bandwagon jumping. They actually needed you.”
And Kevin Durant smiled a great, wide smile, and shrugged, looking like a happy condor, as he entered the locker room.
It may have been harder for him to shrug than normal, what with The Finals MVP trophy in his right hand. On the other (not left) hand, all that weight was, finally, off his back.
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