A leader. Not a follower
If it was still needed, then game one was vindication.
Kevin Durant joined the Golden State Warriors last summer precisely to make the NBA Finals and precisely to win NBA titles. He joined a team that was as guaranteed to make the Finals as any team could ever realistically wish to be. He did so not to ride coattails, but to turn the sublime into the ridiculous.
And in game one, he did just that.
Durant had 23 first half points, punctuated by a couple of authoritative, explosive dunks in which the Cleveland Cavaliers’ defence parted like a badling of ducks with a dog storming towards them. He finished the game with 38 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists and zero turnovers, shooting 14-26 from the floor, 3-6 from three and 7-8 from the foul line.
For all their depth, Golden State had only Durant and Steph Curry (28 points) scoring in double figures in the game, but it was all they needed. Essentially, Durant alone was all they needed.
The Cavaliers had no answer for Durant. Nor will they. Durant is an impossible match-up at the forward positions for any team, yet particularly so for the Cavaliers, whose personnel just do not have the match-ups to check him any.
As great as he still is, and as savvy and timely as he has become defensively, LeBron James’s defensive energy is down and won’t now come back up. He can be seen walking on defence at times, not necessarily through laziness, but through a need to conserve himself on the other end. He can see what is going to happen and knows the schemes, but standing at the back pointing out what needs to be done is not enough. He needs his teammates to move their feet to get there first. They do not.
The other starting forward, Kevin Love, is not quick. Love has improved throughout his career on his lateral footwork and his ability to step out on perimeter-centric opposing big men, but this will never truly overcome the foot speed he gives up to many of them. It is one thing to be able to step up on Mirza Teletovic and the like. It is quite another to come out and find Kevin Durant coming at you with a live dribble.
Cleveland consistently broke down on the endless side pick-and-rolls that the Warriors ran, as well as their off-ball screens for shooters. They did so particularly in the ones Durant was involved in. KD can and does run both halves of the pick-and-roll, be it as the ball handler or the screener, and when he does so, he can either drive, pop or cut as required. He is ridiculously useful, versatile and talented in these situations, and when he was the ball handler, Cleveland had no one to stop him. Richard Jefferson and Kyle Korver were too slow, and Love even slower. Indeed, for all his athletic prowess when running forwards, even LeBron James’s lateral speed is on the way out. No one could fight over a screen in time to slow Durant as a ball handler, and misunderstandings of what to do on the resulting switches is what led to the front door being wide open so often. Kevin Durant does not miss out on open lanes.
The switches were uncoordinated. Alarmingly often, both defenders would be stuck on the wrong side of the screen, allowing a driving lane to the ball handler if he simply chose to go away from them. In transition, it was worse, with Cavaliers players routinely missing assignments and failing to stop the ball, including two egregious examples where literally no one tried and wide-open dunks were to be had. And Durant was the beneficiary of these.
Give him a driving lane, and he’s already two steps down it before you are able to correctly call out the rotation. Give him a screen, and he’ll find the two foot of space that is all he needs. Somehow deny him that space, and he’ll find the screener with the pass anyway. And on the rare occasions there was a wall inside the paint before him, he could shoot over it.
It is not obvious what can be done about it. In last year’s Finals, the Cavaliers overcame because they could hide a big man on Harrison Barnes, allowing them to switch all other positions. But there is no Harrison Barnes this year. Harrison Barnes is now Kevin Durant. He’s not the one to hide players on. He’s the new frontcourt lynchpin.
Durant has greatly improved as a passer, playmaker and floor-seer throughout the course of his career, and this has never been more evident than this season, when he routinely plays with four other capable-to-great offensive players at every given moment. The eight assists are a by-product partly of the defensive attention he drew – while the Cavaliers’ Swiss cheese defence was not effective in any way all game, it is still to Durant’s credit that he could move them around so freely – and partly due to the Warriors’ multitude of scoring options, even on a misfiring night from Klay Thompson. Yet it also speaks to Durant’s ever-growing basketball IQ. He sees the floor and sees the defence’s intentions several seconds before it begins to move, and has improved not only in his ability to spot passing lanes, but in his ability to get the ball through them. What goes in the book as a 38 points, 8 assists night could have been nearer 50 points if not for a couple of missed shots at the rim (and a slightly closer score line), and 12 assists if Thompson had hit like usual that night. This coming from a forward.
The other major area of growth for Durant this season has been defensively, where he has become a fearsome help defender. Cleveland lost the game because of turnovers, yet Durant’s long arms and timing were a large part of why they committed so many. He was active in the passing lanes, active when free-roaming, kept his hands up and feet moving on switches, and was timely in jumping the passes. Assuming Cleveland finds a way in the rest of the series to get into the basket without having to rely on one-on-one dribbling exhibitions by Kyrie Irving, they will then find they have Kevin Durant at the basket, coming over from the weak side to block the shot like a young JaVale McGee in his prime.
It is open to interpretation whether Durant ‘sold out’ in joining the Warriors last summer. It only really depends on the level of importance given by any individual to the sanctity of being a one club man. What is known fact, though, is that in doing so, Durant completed himself as a player. A great scorer average in other facets of the game, Durant has this season become an all-around superstar of a player to a level he had not before reached. He is the perfect player whose arrival completes a frankly pretty perfect Warriors team.
Which, for Cleveland fans, must be pretty frustrating.