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Weekend Focus: It’s now Durant’s time to shine in Finals role reversal with LeBron

By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media

OAKLANDKevin Durant can downplay or deny it all he wants.

He just doesn’t score many points here doing so. But the sheer mix of basketball perfection and aggressive vengeance he unleashed in Golden State’s Game 1 blowout of Cleveland in the Finals was five years in the making. Durant’s 38 points and zero turnovers in a tone-setting, 113-91 rout of LeBron James and the defending champs were the second-most points by a player in Finals history without committing a miscue.

That distinction is fitting. Durant, personally, has no margin for error.

The stakes for him are simple: it’s breakthrough or bust. The truth is the Warriors were a proven champion and historically great team before he arrived. They would have very likely been in this same position in the Finals again had Durant stayed in Oklahoma City.

But this, of course, isn’t about the Warriors. It’s about Durant, despite his insistence it’s not.

We’ll hear Durant repeat throughout the Finals that he’s only focused on the Warriors’ team goal of winning a championship. But privately, Durant is driven by redemption. It dates back to facing James for the first time in the Finals five years ago, when there was a clear delineation between the superstars.

Back then, James was on the way to winning his first NBA title in his second season with the controversially assembled Heat after bolting Cleveland for the seductive sun, sands and sure thing Miami assembled as a championship juggernaut. After dropping Game 1 in Oklahoma City in the 2012 Finals, James and the Heat blew through the Thunder, which set the table for the dismantling of OKC’s young trio of Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

Harden was dealt to Houston the following offseason. Durant and Westbrook would grapple with injuries and underachieving the next several years as the veteran Spurs temporarily reclaimed the top spot in the West until the Warriors replaced OKC as the young, dynamic dynasty in the making.

Durant was consumed by his pursuit of James’ stature, and distraught by constantly fall short, whether it was finishing second those times in MVP voting or runner-up in that 2012 Finals. In covering the NBA for nearly two decades, there are things many of us easily take for granted. One of the biggest surprises of Game 1 from my perspective wasn’t the outcome. It was a minor detail I was reminded of as Durant was introduced in the starting lineup.

“In his 10th season out of Texas …,” the Oracle Arena announcer blared.

That’s when it hit me.

That’s when the fan in me, who’s had a hard time supporting Durant for leaving OKC to hop on a ready-made championship float in Golden State, began to really soften and understand. It’s easy to forget Durant has been in this position for a decade. Nobody in this league plays at that level forever, although LeBron actually might. But Durant has been desperately chasing something he thought he was on the verge of tasting five years ago. That’s a long time to toil through disappointments and doubts, and then double-down for another four or five years of the same in OKC.

Time catches up to you and then passes you by. So does elite competition. Five years ago, Durant bemoaned how he was always second to LeBron. Then, he gradually lost even that lofty real estate. Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs butted ahead in line out West. And before Durant knew it, Steph Curry cut in front of them both and waved for Draymond Green and Klay Thompson to join him on an amusement park-style ‘fast pass’ to the Finals.

It’s not about me.. He’s LeBron James. You guys know what he can do. I just try to play as hard as I can and not make it about a matchup. It’s about us, the Golden State Warriors
-- Kevin Durant

So Durant cut the line himself and is now three more victories from justifying why he left OKC for the big stage in the Bay. He’s at the forefront of the Finals, starring down James again. That’s why this is about redemption. And restoration. For as much as Durant tried to avoid James’ shadow, he’s retrofitted himself into it by signing up for this breakthrough-or-scapegoat mission with the Warriors.

“It’s not about me,” Durant said heading into Game 2 on Sunday. “He’s LeBron James. You guys know what he can do. I just try to play as hard as I can and not make it about a matchup. It’s about us, the Golden State Warriors … and we’re going to do it together.”

Those, of course, are the right things to say.

But the truth lies in the way Durant has committed to playing in these Finals. Just as it’s easy to forget he’s already 10 seasons into his career, it’s equally mystifying to see how the same player who dunked and dominated James and the Cavs in Game 1 also recently missed a month with a knee injury.

I’ve covered enough playoff series to know how quickly things change, how momentum swings wildly from one team to the other and alters a series in an instant. That’s why it’s silly to overract to one game. Look no further than last year’s Finals, when the Warriors won the first two games against the Cavaliers by a total of 48 points. It was the largest margin of victory through two games of the Finals in history.

What happened then? James and the Cavaliers made some history of their own by becoming the first team to rally from a 3-1 series deficit in the Finals to win a championship.

These may be the same Cavs, but those are hardly the same Dubs.

“I mean, you take one of the best teams we’ve ever assembled, that we saw (finish 73-9) in the regular season, and then in the offseason you add a high-powered offensive talent like that and a great basketball IQ, that’s what stands out,” James said of Durant’s impact on Golden State. “No ifs, ands or buts; we’ve got to figure out how to combat that, which is going to be a tough challenge for us.”

Five years ago, Durant expressed a similar feeling after a Game 2 loss to Miami in the Finals, when James scored 32 points, shut down Durant in the final seconds and took over the series. Durant was reminded of the tears he shed after that series loss to Miami. He addressed how those memories drive him now.

“What other option do I have?” Durant responded. “I wouldn’t do my teammates any good if I wasn’t enjoying the moment, no matter what. So I just try to stay locked in. That’s all it’s about.”

These Finals are actually about so much more than that.

For now, just don’t expect to hear it from Durant.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.