OAKLAND — “It’s not easy at all,” said Kevin Durant about his Game 1 performance.
Could have fooled me. Could have fooled a whole bunch of people, including Rihanna and Jay Z and all the other beautiful people inside Oracle Arena on Thursday night.
If you watched, then you know that Durant was quite beautiful on the court himself and made it look very easy, scoring 38 points in the Warriors’ 113-91 victory over Cleveland’s Cavaliers. One game does not show that Durant has become the world’s best player. LeBron James will have something to say about that over the next two weeks. But one game did allow Durant to not only show the Warriors how to beat the Cavaliers in these 2017 NBA Finals, but also shows the Dubs how they should have beat the Cavs last year.
Hmmmmm. Maybe that’s why the Warriors wanted to sign the guy?
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Before discussing how the Durant factor will affect the rest of the series, starting with Sunday’s Game 2, let’s flash back to 12 months ago for perspective. I know. It’s painful for Warriors followers to revisit. But in Game 7 with the NBA title on the line, four minutes left in the fourth quarter and the score 89-89, the Warriors had many chances to score. They took nine shots. They made zero. They kept lifting jumpers from beyond the 3-point arc or just inside it, with the sole exception of Andre Iguodala — who drove to the hoop once and had his shot slammed off the backboard by James. No other men in Golden State uniforms went near the glass with the ball, to force the issue or try to draw a foul.
And the Warriors lost that Game 7. Miserably and shockingly. Afterward, Stephen Curry owned up to “settling” for 3-point attempts when he should have been more aggressive, although he wasn’t the only guilty party. Thursday night, as you watched Durant do exactly what the Warriors should have done in those final Game 7 minutes, it was impossible not to ponder what might have been. Last year in those final Game 7 minutes, Durant would have put the ball on the floor and driven into the paint. But he wasn’t a Warrior and he wasn’t here. So he did it Thursday.
The results were dramatic and educational. In the first half, Durant scored 23 points — and didn’t make a 3-point shot. Only tried two of them. Otherwise, often guarded by James, Durant looked to attack the basket. A couple of times, as Cleveland defenders cheated to the corners where Warrior shooters were standing, Durant went right down Broadway and dunked the ball. He had a few more slams strictly off the dribble. Was that in the game plan? Or was it an organic development, based on how the Cavaliers defended him and the flow of the action?
“That was organic,” Durant said. “I don’t know when I’m going to dunk or when I’m going to get the wide-open 3. I just go out there and play. I try not to predetermine anything, just go out there and hoop.”
I would never call the man a liar. Durant is absolutely an improvisational basketball savant. But as it turns out, the Durant-To-The-Rack scenario Thursday was also slightly non-organic. Mike Brown, the Warriors’ acting coach, revealed after the game that from the get-go, the idea was to have Durant be aggressive. It will surprise no one that this idea came from coach Steve Kerr, who once more spent the game in the locker room with his painful back but spoke to the team beforehand about the Durant emphasis.
“Steve suggested we try to put the ball in his hands right away and try to put him in position where he can attack downhill,” Brown said. “So we tried to do that early on and KD didn’t settle. When he had an opportunity, he went downhill. And it worked out well.”
Uh, yes. It did. As the Cavaliers worried more about Durant and other Warriors out in 3-point territory, KD happily reversed the usual Warriors mojo and stormed toward two points instead. He was 10 for 16 inside the arc in the first half and drew fouls that allowed him to make three free throws.
“One thing about KD is that he can get to the basket any time he wants,” said teammate Draymond Green. “He’s seven feet tall. So there’s usually never a bad shot that he takes because he sees right over people … You could tell that their game plan was to take the ‘3’ away. When they do that, you got to drive the basketball.”
And isn’t it interesting how this works? Once Durant set an example, other Warriors followed. Klay Thompson continued to have issues making his 3-pointers, so he looked inside and made three two-pointers. Green was 1 for 5 from 3-point range, so went back to his grinding mentality and made a few two-point baskets while also drawing fouls and making free throws.
Naturally, the Cavaliers responded to this shift in the Warriors’ priorities by concentrating more on stopping the drives — which in turn created more space on the perimeter. This led to a second half in which the Dubs pulled away by making 9 of 20 attempts from beyond the 3-point line, three of them by Durant. See how the gears fit together? Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue might wish to rethink those remarks about the Celtics being harder to defend than the Warriors.
Yes, there were other Golden State assets that contributed to a Game 1 victory. The Warriors kept their turnovers to a minimum (four). They were very effective defensive rebounders. But the Dubs often did that stuff last June, too, as they took a 3-1 lead in the Finals before losing three straight. What the Warriors did not do, in Game 7 when it really mattered, was assault the rim. That’s why it was so heartening to see the weaponry that Durant brought and utilized Thursday night, from the outside and inside. The Cavaliers know they have a big problem on their hands in trying to stop him.
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“No ifs, ands or buts, we got to figure out how to combat that,” James said of Durant’s onslaught. “Which is going to be a tough challenge for us.”
The Warriors will win this series, They are on track to do so quickly. Yet in fairness, I should again remind everyone that last year, the Warriors beat Cleveland in Game 1 by 20 points and Game 2 by 33 points. We all know what happened next. But I get the feeling that this time around, the Dubs will never allow themselves to go 0 for 9 down the crucial stretch of any game by continually flinging the ball up from distance.
The Dubs learned their lesson in 2016 about all that. And in 2017, they have a tutor who is teaching by example. He wears uniform No. 35.