OAKLAND, Calif. — Kevin Durant just had one of the great games of his career, and all anyone wanted to talk about on Twitter was whether it was fair. That’s the burden for becoming the living avatar of Warrior exceptionalism, and it’s difficult to consider Durant in any context other than his immediate surroundings.
Make note of how he operates with such grace in the space afforded by his skilled teammates, and it becomes a reminder of just how obscenely talented the Warriors have become. Comment on their fluid passing and unselfish movement, and it feels like a backhanded slap at his former team.
Durant can’t win with the public right now, which is its problem as much as his. So he has no other choice than to continue piling up victories. If he thrives under these circumstances as he did in Golden State’s 113-91 Game 1 victory, then it’s expected. If he fails, well, that’s unacceptable.
That hasn’t been a problem throughout the postseason. With Game 1 in their back pocket, the Warriors became the first team to win their first 13 straight playoff games and they tied the late ‘80s Lakers for most consecutive postseason victories. Golden State has become unbeatable in reality as well as in theory.
Given all that, KD shouldn’t be looking for any sympathy, and if this season has been any indication, he isn’t expecting any either. He made his career choice and seems at peace with both its pleasures and its ramifications.
Then again, Durant didn’t need any after posting a 38-8-8 line without a single turnover. In any context, it was one of the great finals performances of all time, and that it came primarily against LeBron James only adds to the magnitude.
This is ultimately the way out for Durant. If he outperforms LeBron on the finals stage while leading the Warriors to a championship, then no apologies will be necessary. James himself offered the most succinct summation of what stood out the most to him about Game 1 when he answered, simply, “KD.”
“You take one of the best teams that we had ever assembled last year, that we saw in the regular season and in the postseason,” James said. “And then in the offseason you add a high-powered offensive talent like that and a great basketball IQ like that, that's what stands out.”
Durant understandably didn’t want any part of the individual matchup equation. Like everyone else in the league, he’s operated in LeBron’s shadow and is one of the select few to even be able to offer a significant challenge. There’s no incentive in tugging on the cape at this juncture.
“Well, it's not about me,” Durant said. “He's going to do what he does. He's LeBron James. You guys know what he can do. So I just tried to play as hard as I can and not make it about a matchup. It's about us, it's about the Golden State Warriors vs. the Cleveland Cavaliers and we're only going to do it together. That's just our whole mindset.”
Durant was in attack mode from the very beginning. He posted early and got going inside the arc with his unblockable pull-up. That was the game plan as acting coach Mike Brown explained after the game: Get the ball to Durant early and put him in position where he can operate downhill going to the basket.
What was remarkable was that on three occasions, the lane parted wide open for him to sail in for uncontested dunks while the Cleveland defenders scrambled back to Golden State’s shooters.
This is the predicament Durant presents: Everyone knows you can’t leave Steph Curry and Klay Thompson open behind the arc, but you sure as hell can’t let Durant glide to the rim for easy points.
Is that fair? Well, no. It’s not. That’s what happens when you amass this amount of talent and offensive firepower around one of the greatest scorers who’s ever lived.
“To have a game like that when he's playing that way, it's tough to beat,” Draymond Green said. “38-8-8, zero turnovers? We're real tough to beat when he's doing that. And so, no, he just did what we expect of him. We're going to seek him out, get him the ball, and guys got to defend him.”
In previous finals matchups, the Cavs were able to have LeBron guard Harrison Barnes, which left him free to roam. That’s also what they were able to do to great effect against the Raptors and Celtics during the Eastern Conference playoffs. As Cavs coach Ty Lue noted before the game, “Those days are over.”
James has to defend Durant because the Cavs have no real alternative. That puts an additional burden on LeBron, who must also carry the Cleveland offense. LeBron had 28 points, 15 rebounds, and eight assists, but he also had eight turnovers and it was a subpar night by his extreme standards.
Durant’s presence works both ways, as well. Not only is he an underrated defender in his own right and the Warriors’ best rim protector, but his offensive game allows Green and Klay Thompson to extend as much energy as necessary on the defensive end.
Green and Thompson were a combined 6-of-28 from the floor and 1-of-10 from behind the arc, but that was secondary to their defensive work. Green does everything on that end anyway, while Thompson drew Kyrie Irving, which in turn freed up Curry to get his own offensive rhythm.
We must note the caveat that it’s only one game. Any team with LeBron, especially when the team is the defending champs, must be afforded that respect. Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the Warriors with Kevin Durant are unlike anything else we’ve ever seen.
If that is the Warriors’ defining trait, then these finals will be less about a referendum on the state of fairness than the coronation of a superteam that lived up to our expectations. That’s all Durant can do, and it’s up to us to accept their inevitability.