CLEVELAND — The only thing this NBA Finals was missing, besides a victory by someone other than the Warriors, was a sense of the surreal that had shrouded the two previous meetings between these two teams. We had already consumed the requisite blowouts and enjoyed one well-played epic, but the element of the bizarre that seems to accompany the Cavs and Warriors during this trilogy? No, we had not seen that yet.
Game 4 checked every box on the freak scale, from shaky officiating to hard fouls, cheap shots, trash talk, and even a fan ejection. Unlike Game 3, it was not a well-played affair, and unlike the first two games at Oracle, it was not a blowout in the traditional sense. Sure, the Cavs enjoyed a double-digit lead for most of the night, but it felt tenuous.
That’s what playing the Warriors will do for a lead, but Golden State did itself no favors by leaving a ton of points on the floor. The Dubs missed nine free throws and 28 threes, with many of them coming from quality looks. They’re not likely to shoot that poorly again, but the Cavs couldn’t have been expected to keep chucking up bricks either.
When you cut through the chaos and look through the clear eyes of objective data, Game 4 was the ultimate regression to the mean. That it had to get weird was only fitting, given the history between these two teams. They don’t do normal this time of year.
And so, we’re right back where we were a year ago, with the Warriors heading home with a 3-1 series lead and everything in place to clinch a title in front of their fans on Monday night. It’s not quite the same scenario, of course. Steph Curry is healthy, Kevin Love isn’t in the concussion protocol, and Draymond Green isn’t facing a suspension.
The true difference, however, is the ultimate reason why we’re once again at 3-1 instead of heading back to Oakland all square. That would be Kevin Durant, whose shot at the end of Game 3 stood as the signature moment of these Finals until all hell broke loose on Friday night.
“You can tell, he knows this is his moment,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said after Durant’s shot stole Game 3. “He’s been an amazing player in this league for a long time, and I think he’s — he senses this is his time, his moment, his team. When I say his team, I mean it’s not literally just his team, it’s we got a group around him that can help him and create space for him with the shooting and the playmaking, and I think he’s having the time of his life out there.”
It’s honestly hard to tell how Durant feels about anything these days. He’s been reserved in media settings to the point of blandness throughout the Finals. After a year spent explaining his decision to ditch Oklahoma City for the Bay, he seems talked out by this point and it’s hard to blame him. How many more times can he rationalize the move when the reasons are as clear as the morning sun once the fog lifts over the Golden Gate Bridge?
“Basketball’s like a rhythm game,” Durant said. “It’s a free-flowing game, and you just want to be a part of it. That’s what makes it just even more and more fun. Guys are moving. You are working together. You’re communicating out there on both ends. You see it playing against them, and then you see it on TV. And then it’s a different feel when you’re around it every single day.”
I mean, who wouldn’t want this? He has space and freedom out here, not only on the court but off it, where he is merely a significant part of a larger machine. KD doesn’t have to do everything to help the Warriors win, even though he’s been their best player throughout the Finals. While everything else was disintegrating in Game 4, there was Durant keeping the Warriors within striking distance.
Even after shooting just 2-for-9 from behind the arc, KD had 35 points on 22 shots and just one turnover. He lived at the free throw line and was the only Warrior player who attacked the basket throughout the game. Without Durant, Game 4 looks a lot like last year’s Game 3, when the Cavs ran the Dubs right off the court. This was a competitive blowout for most of the night and that’s primarily because of Durant.
How he got to this place continues to be an object of much discussion and interest. Long after it’s been dissected, rehashed, and retold, it’s still one of the most serendipitous sequences of events in NBA history.
If the Thunder held on to their 3-1 lead in last year’s conference finals against the Warriors, then Durant probably isn’t wearing a Golden State uniform. And if the Warriors held on to their 3-1 lead in the Finals, then he really isn’t here.
Hell, if the television networks hadn’t decided to drop a bucket of cash on the league, and if the union had gone along with smoothing the salary cap jump slowly, and if someone had said the wrong thing in the Hamptons … we could go on like this all day, but none of it changes the ultimate outcome.
“In this job it’s hard enough to deal with reality,” general manager Bob Myers said earlier in the series. “I could spin out of control on hypotheticals. We lost. They beat us and we tried to get better. With Kevin we did.”
The Warriors clearly got better, but they didn’t improve this season so much as coalesce. They didn’t even try to challenge 73 wins, and at times it felt like one long extended practice session en route to this very moment. They needed to figure out how to blend Durant and Steph Curry’s scoring abilities and it took time to figure out just how good Durant was on the defensive end. (He’s really good on that end, as it turns out.)
At times the process has seemed seamless, and at others it looked like it didn’t even matter. Kevin Durant was on the freaking Warriors and there wasn’t much analysis or moments of discovery needed to understand the magnitude of the move. But maybe that was an illusion. It’s never as easy as it appears to fit talent into an equation like this. Maybe he didn’t get enough credit for making it look that way.
“He’s obviously unselfish as a person and as a basketball player when it comes to understanding how he can impact the game, every single night, and do it his way,” Curry said. “But that would fit right into our style and our identity. It took a while for it to kind of reveal itself consistently as the regular season went on, but once it clicked and the habits started to become second nature, it was kind of beautiful to watch and an amazing kind of style to play and watch unfold.”
Right up until the Cavs kicked their asses in Game 4, it’s been a treat. Lament the super-team concept all you want, and there’s validity to that recalcitrant stance, but the Warriors sure play a beautiful game of basketball. They may or may not be among the greatest teams of all time, but there’s never been anything like them and that’s an accomplishment that stands all by itself.
The Warriors have been so good they hadn’t lost in almost two months before Friday’s reality check, and that brings us full circle to the moment that has defined their run for the last year. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Warriors blew a 3-1 lead.
Kevin Durant is here to make sure that never happens again. This is his moment. These are his Finals. All that’s left is one more game to complete the tale and exorcise those ghosts.