OAKLAND — The last three winners of the NBA Finals MVP trophy are currently on the benches at Oracle Arena for this fourth meeting between the Warriors and Cavaliers, each living in separate worlds.
The second is LeBron James (2016), who went nuclear in the opener with 51 points and his searing post-season run has the Warriors on high alert.
And the third is Kevin Durant (2017) who right now is flip-flopping between Iguodala and LeBron: Half-missing, half-dangerous.
If not for the follies of the referees, George Hill and especially JR Smith in Game 1, the player on the griddle right now would be Durant, who remained drifting in and out of a mysterious shooting funk and was bailed out by an overturned call, a missed free throw and a forgetful Cavaliers guard.
Taking it a step further, Steph Curry took the mic from Durant and is now the Warriors’ lead singer at least until further notice, or when Durant remembers what the summer of 2017 was like for him.
He’s not the Durant of last year’s Finals, not yet anyway, and you wonder if this could cost the Warriors a game or two, or even the series if Klay Thompson’s bum ankle becomes a problem and LeBron stays locked in his trance of a historic level.
“He hasn’t probably been as consistent as he was last year,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr, “but neither have we. I would say that about every one of our guys. It’s been a little different vibe, but that’s OK. Every trip is a little different. We’re where we want to be and we’re all very confident that we’re going to get better from here.”
The opening game of this series reflected Durant’s entire postseason. Sharp one moment and flawed the next, these lapses are alarming only because it’s quite a contrast from the Durant who was the best player in a series that included LeBron in Warriors-Cavaliers III. And also because James is on such an elevated level right now, ripping through defenses and strutting while Durant often struggles. The contrast between the two is wider than expected.
Durant’s fingerprints were all over the final crazy seconds of Game 1, where he could’ve easily been the goat.
First: After apparently losing confidence in his jumper after missing seven of eight 3-point shots, Durant forced his way to the rim and drew contact with LeBron, who provided late help. The initial call of an offensive foul was overturned only because another referee mistakenly thought LeBron was in the restricted area, which gave the refs a chance to use instant replay and call LeBron for blocking instead.
Second: After Hill missed a free throw that would’ve given the Cavs a one-point lead with 4.7 seconds left, Durant forgot to box out Smith, who snuck in for the rebound. Warriors coach Steve Kerr at that moment was incredulous, but unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’re aware of what Smith did right after that, taking Durant off the hook.
Also: With Iguodala sidelined, Durant didn’t offer much resistance against LeBron, who shot a high percentage against a player who claimed he deserved mention for the league’s all-defensive team.
Interestingly, the Warriors were plus-17 with Durant on the floor of that overtime game, which seems to contradict plenty, but even Durant knows he wasn’t completely himself.
“I didn’t take smart shots,” he said. “I took risky shots. I took some shots I know I can hit, but I’d rather get better ones than that.”
When Durant led the Warriors to their second title in three years last summer, it was a coronation for him. He took some public grief after leaving Oklahoma City but it turned out well; the Warriors were energized by his presence, went undefeated in the Western Conference playoffs and then beat LeBron and the Cavs in five games.
Plus, in that championship series he enjoyed the rarefied air of a true superstar, outplaying LeBron and winning series MVP after averaging 35.2 points on 55 percent shooting. The signature play was his go-ahead pull-up jumper from 3-point range with 45 seconds left in Game 3, which he swished with LeBron in his face.
After that experience, Durant didn’t dispute the growing notion that he was one of the game’s top five players, or perhaps No. 2 after LeBron. Blessed with a long wingspan, a high release point on his jumper, shooting range of 30 feet and the dexterity to execute a crossover dribble to swoop to the rim at 6-11, Durant made a compelling case. Plus, his defense vastly improved and increased his value at the other rim.
Something changed since then. His 2017-18 regular season numbers were in line with his career marks, but then the Rockets stumbled upon something that stumped Durant in the West finals. He scored 37 and 38 points in the first two games, then shot 9-24, 8-22 and 6-17 over the next three. The Rockets used a switching defense to keep Durant under control. Only once in the last five postseason games has he made half his shots, and in a pair of fourth quarters he had just one basket combined.
“I’m not worried about my makes or misses,” he said. “Am I getting good, quality shots? After that, the rest will take care of itself.”
Kerr makes a point to mention the tough shots Durant took and made in the clincher against the Rockets, yet admits this: “He knows he didn’t play well in Game 1. He’s excited for Game 2.”
Durant had the benefit of Iguodala last year and therefore didn’t need to burn so much energy guarding LeBron. With Iguodala still questionable, Durant must help on LeBron, and like all the others who chipped in, failed to distinguish himself in Game 1.
The Warriors are fortunate that unlike Durant, Curry is near peak form. He finished strongly against the Rockets and that carried over to the Cavs. Bouncy and frisky, Curry is on pace to cause trouble for Cleveland, with 29 points and nine assists in the opener, including a big reverse layup in the final seconds. Keep in mind that Curry’s no longer worrying about guarding Kyrie Irving, and therefore isn’t costing himself calories at both ends.
If not for some unfortunate late-game incidents, though, the Cavs could’ve beaten Golden State anyway. That’s how much of a beast LeBron is, and there’s the realistic possibility of little or no drop-off in production from James.
Speaking of possibilities: Thompson is still wincing from a sore ankle after being undercut Thursday by Smith. He returned and played the final three quarters and overtime, but surprisingly wouldn’t rule himself in for Game 2.
“I don’t know,” he said, and as for the pain? “Not good.”
When Curry was out mending from a knee injury and Thompson went hot and cold with his shooting in the first few playoff rounds, Durant was consistently good and even great, carrying the club in scoring and delivering in close games.
Can he be that player again, with the trophy on the line?
“We’re all a victim of expectations that we’ve set,” said Curry. “I mean, the fact they’re saying KD had a bad game is kind of funny, just with what you expect from him every night.
“But we’re all in this together. We know we won Game 1 by the skin of our teeth. Now we’ve got to go play better, take control of the series. And KD is going to have a huge part in that, for sure.”
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