OAKLAND – Kevin Durant never had to watch the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrate in this Oracle Arena building, to take that walk of shame to the parking lot while the visitors stayed behind to drink and be merry after their stunning Game 7 Finals win over the Golden State Warriors a year ago.
And if the 28-year-old who signed with the Warriors last summer keeps playing like he did in their 113-91 win in Game 1 on Thursday, he’ll never have to.
Durant, whose decision to leave Oklahoma City made him the most scrutinized man of this season and these Finals, finished with 38 points (14-of-26 shooting), eight assists and eight rebounds while taking turns with Warriors co-star Steph Curry (28 points, 10 assists, six rebounds).
With Game 2 here on Sunday, the Warriors are one step closer to avenging the 3-1 collapse that has haunted them since that ill-fated finish in 2016.
The Warriors were up eight at halftime, but grew their lead to 21 in the third quarter when the Cavs’ hapless defense couldn’t keep up. It was unofficially over midway through the third, when Durant pestered LeBron James just enough to force a miss on his drive and found Curry for a three-pointer from the top on the other end that put Golden State up 87-68.
Curry, himself no stranger to scrutiny after his poor Finals performance last year, kicked his legs three times like a pull-string puppet while smiling ear to ear. The Warriors, who know all too well that this is no time for an actual celebration, were on their way.
The Cavs, who were led by James (28 points, 15 rebounds, eight assists) and Kyrie Irving (24 points), simply couldn’t keep up. They shot just 34.9% overall against the team that boasted the league’s No. 2 rated defense in the regular season, with James coughing up eight of their 20 turnovers.
This was a new sort of experience for Durant, who entered play having lost 18 of the 23 games he had played against James in his career (four of five in the 2012 Finals). And while he and the Warriors eventually got rolling, there were a few uneasy minutes at the start that offered a reminder of the magnitude of this stage.
The Warriors missed several wide-open layups, no one more than big man Zaza Pachulia. The Cavs blew a few priceless opportunities, too, and it was fair to assume that nerves were playing a part on both sides. From there, though, they were off and running – no one more than Durant.
Time and again in the first half that the Warriors led 60-52, the Cavs were reminded why this upgraded version of the Warriors is even tougher to guard than the one they bested on this stage a year ago. Durant would come barreling down the lane on the break, the kind of action that one would assume warrants a defender standing in his way, and the Cavs would flee to the outer reaches of the floor to guard the many shooters who were waiting for a kickout pass. But the pass would never come.
Durant, who fell to James and his Miami Heat on this stage five years ago while with the Oklahoma City Thunder, would soar above the rim and hammer home six dunks in the first half alone. According to ESPN, he had never had more than four dunks in the 101 playoffs games he had played to that point. Durant was spectacular, hitting 10 of 18 shots before the break for 23 points while adding six assists and four rebounds.
James tried his best to keep pace, scoring 19 points on five-of-eight shooting (eight-of-10 from the line). But his sloppiness didn’t help, as he had seven turnovers in the first half alone. Irving had 17 points before the break, too, keeping stride with Curry (12 first half points). But the Cavs, who downed Indiana, Toronto and Boston to get here, hadn’t seen an offense like this on their path to the Finals.
The scary part at that point? They were down eight despite the Warriors shooting just 42.6% overall and having misfired on 10 of 13 three-pointers.
Cavs coach Ty Lue discussed the danger of Durant before the game, when he was asked about his recent preference to let James rest a bit on the defensive end by not asking him to guard the other team’s best players. But that’s a luxury not afforded by these Warriors.
“Those days are over,” Lue said. “(James will) be fine. He's up for the challenge. We know Kevin Durant is a tough guard, a tough matchup. But Steph, Klay, Draymond, whoever you put him on is going to be a tough challenge. So those days are over.”
Sam Amick, USA Today Sports