There was a moment in the fourth quarter of Game 2 when Kevin Love posted up Kevin Durant on the low block. Love tried backing Durant down. It didn’t work. He looked to pass, but there was no one open or cutting through. He tried backing Durant down again, to no avail.
With no other options left, Love tried to shoot a turnaround jumper over his defender. Durant blocked it with his Mr. Fantastic arms, recovered possession, held the ball, and looked around in menacing satisfaction at all he’s conquered. Then he went to the other end and scored on an absurd, double-guarded, falling shot that saw him let go of the ball a split second before he hit the ground.
It all felt so unfair.
The Warrior is as if Ivan Drago recruited a bigger, meaner Ivan Drago to knock Rocky back to the ropes every time he started humming “Eye of the Tiger” and fighting back.
After the Warriors’ easy Game 1 win, the desperate hope came in the form of people reminding themselves that LeBron James usually loses the first game of the Finals. After this game, the new refuge is the fact that the Cavaliers are losing by fewer points after the first two games than they were before last year’s rally.
Those facts are both true, but this is not the Golden State of last year. This is not like any team LeBron has ever faced.
Even LeBron knows it:
This is a different team simply because this team has Kevin Durant. They have the second-best player in the league, one who acts as an amazing get-out-of-jail-free card.
Durant can guard LeBron in a way that Andre Iguodala no longer can. He can protect the rim. Block shots. He can push the ball and run the game like a point guard at 7 feet. His shot is so pure that it should be sold by Walter White.
More importantly, he kills the Cavaliers’ momentum whenever they get close.
The beginning of the third quarter offers the perfect test case. Cleveland came within one point after a Tristan Thompson layup with 10 and a half minutes to go. That came on the back of two rare (and inspiring) defensive stops: a Durant miss and a Zaza Pachulia turnover. The Cavaliers were right there, down one, ready to take the lead after what had felt like an eternity.
Then Durant came down and hit a back-breaking three-pointer while drawing the foul against J.R. Smith. Oracle Arena erupted and the energy got sucked out of Cleveland.
Durant’s presence presents a deadly problem for the Cavaliers and a wonderful relief for the Warriors. Durant can give LeBron fits guarding him one-on-one and at least make the Cavaliers’ best player work hard to score two points. Then, he can go on the other end and score easily in a myriad of ways. He can thrive in the paint on the basis of being basketball’s Iron Giant. Or, in typical Golden State fashion, he can just pull up from the three. He can even create a dreaded long two, which is as easy for him as a layup.
He can do all that even when everyone else around him is struggling and LeBron is in God mode. With Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson lagging in the first two quarters, Durant kept Golden State in front long enough for his cohorts to heat up after the half. When LeBron threw a beautiful alley-oop to Love that brought the lead down to four in the second quarter, Durant, in a way that seemed scripted, came through for the Warriors with an and-1 to push it back to seven.
The half ended with Durant grabbing his own rebound after a missed three and hitting a subsequent jump shot that made Kyrie Irving’s spectacular layup with 1.2 seconds left almost an afterthought.
The scary underbelly of the “Warriors blew a 3-1 lead” joke was that the Warriors of last year had a 3-1 lead on the Cavaliers. They were already one game away from back-to-back titles. Then, they went and added the only player in the league that can match LeBron.
The power is completely skewed in the Warriors’ direction now. Last year’s Cavaliers team had to play damn near perfect and have things go catastrophically wrong for Golden State to win. That doesn’t seem possible this year.
It feels like the Cavaliers can play absolutely perfectly and still lose because the Warriors just have too many weapons. The Warriors can also have a game where they throw the ball away carelessly, where Curry goes the entire second quarter without scoring, where LeBron can dominate, where the Cavaliers can get to within one point, and still end the game with a blowout loss because Durant wipes away any type of competitiveness that tries to creep into the matchup. Every single time.
Coming into the series, some of the Cavaliers player took offense to being labeled underdogs. After all, they are the defending champions with the best player on the planet.
But when Durant is dunking and shooting over everyone and Curry and Thompson are heat-checking from the parking lot, the reality sets in. The team that went 73-9 last year added Kevin Durant.
The Cavaliers might make this series competitive, but there’s no precedent for this. Not even the miracle effort of last year is close to enough to beat this Golden State team. LeBron was right. This is a different team.
This Warriors team makes it feels like an act of delusion to even contemplate all the things that have to go wrong for them to lose a seven-game series. Because whenever there’s a little light for Cleveland, the Warriors have a 7-foot sharpshooter to tip the scales in their favor again.