Kevin Durant plays different to the rest of the Warriors, but that was always the plan

2018 NBA Finals - Game Two

The Cleveland Cavaliers' loss in game one of the 2018 NBA Finals was an absolute gut punch of a loss. Put simply, they blew game one with silly errors - wasting one of the best all-time single game NBA Finals performances in history by LeBron James, through a series of late-game errors that saw them implode and squander what is likely to be their best chance at winning a road game in this series.

It was therefore vitally important that they came out in game two ready and determined to make amends. In light of such a painful loss, Cleveland needed to immediately assuage any worries that they had already blown the entire thing, and come out and play with a confidence and swagger to show that it really was still all to play for, regardless of how the previous one had ended.

Naturally, then, they immediately let the Golden State Warriors hit their first seven shots from the field. And it would have been eight had JaVale McGee not dropped a pass that would otherwise likely have been a dunk.

This is what this Cavaliers team does, has done all year, and has done in every year since LeBron's return. They disappoint defensively. 

LeBron did not have in game two whatever it was that he had in game one. Whereas his game one performance had featured a 24 point first half in which he rarely broke a sweat, nothing came quite as easy in game two. A more physical and relentless Warriors defence (bolstered by Kevin Durant, who took LeBron's primary coverage far more regularly in this match-up, and Draymond Green, who again was absolutely everywhere) saw James struggle for open looks all game;, that, plus a still-bloodied eye from a game one Draymond face-rake that surely could not have helped his vision at all, made for a slower, less explosive James. He lacked for lift, clanked quite a few lay-ups, seemed reluctant to shoot from outside, and had a number of first-half passes deflected.

Finishing with 29 points, 13 assists and 9 rebounds overall is far from a disappointing performance, yet the fact that it somewhat felt like it speaks to the standards to which LeBron has been playing this postseason, and to which he must play if Cleveland are to beat the irrepressible Golden State Warriors in four out of the next five games. The Warriors put forth a more concerted defensive effort on James, yet the Cavaliers' inability to overcome it as a team - discounting James's 10-20 shooting and the meaningless 5-8 shooting of the garbage time line-up, the rest of the team went only 22-72 from the field, proved terminal.

Flanking that was some strong performance from Warriors role players. Shaun Livingston made all five of his shots off of transition, pull-ups and cuts, making quick decisions and understanding who he is on the court, while McGee also made all of his shots in a spot-start role. His athleticism, rim-running and screen slipping gave the Warriors an offensive dynamic that Kevon Looney before him never did, and it was his dunk in the first 11 seconds that gave the Warriors a lead they never relinquished. And alongside them all, Klay Thompson scored 20 points in his usual silent assassin style. If ever there was such a thing as an overlooked perennial All-Star, he is it. 

But none of this had an impact on the game even remotely like the two Warriors' scoring superstars did. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry combined for 59 points, and their offensive synergy was the undoing of everything Cleveland tried to do.

2018 NBA Finals - Game Two

Stephen Curry was your leading Western Conference All-Star vote getter. Stephen Curry was your Western Conference All-Star captain. Stephen Curry is a two-time NBA MVP and possibly your next NBA Finals MVP. There is a zero percentage chance that you did not already know he was a brilliant, transcendent, league-changing player. But maybe he is even better than you already thought.

Curry has redefined the concept of a shooter. He has not just pushed back the all-time NBA record for three-pointers; he has absolutely shattered it. With a single-season record of 402, made in the 2015-16 season, Curry became not only the first player to break the 400 mark, but also the first to break 300. He, a point guard, just led the league in true shooting percentage at 67.5% (minimum 35 games played; sorry, Ante Zizic). The only player within 126 makes of Curry is himself. And with nine made three-pointers in game two of these Finals, he just set yet another NBA three-point shooting record.

The playing style is in itself not entirely unique, but the talent level is. No one else shoots this well. No one else shoots this confidently. No one else earns this freedom. And it is certainly not just about the jump shot. No other small player finishes at the rim this well. A couple of others can maybe handle this well, but they do not get to these areas of the court with it. If he played in this way without playing quite this well, he would be Jannero Pargo. It is Curry’s talent level is what sets him apart. So very, very far apart.

When Curry is on the court, the Warriors have an offensive rating of 122.8. When he is off of it, that number drops all the way down to 107.9. When he's on, the team has an effective field goal percentage of 61.0%. When he's off, it plummets to 53.8%. And so it goes on. Curry does not benefit from the Warriors' system; Curry is the Warriors' system. It is the threat of his pull-ups that opens up his dribble drives, that opens up all the dive cuts for others, that opens up his off-ball movement. Everything Golden State does so brilliantly and so uniquely starts with his brilliant and unique talents.

In game two, there was a point at which Curry was shooting 8-23 for the game, while all of the rest of the Warriors combined were shooting 32-40. On the face of it, then, Curry was costing his team. Yet that stat was misleading. Curry, normally an elite finisher at the rim, missed looks he would not normally miss, hence the overall shooting inefficiency. Yet Curry's proactivity, dynamism and offensive gravity were always in play, and the system as a whole was operating because of his timely aggression. And the three-pointers he did hit were often of the preposterous kind. Whether or not there is any validity to the criticism which states that Curry is at times too enamoured with the highlight reel, giant-killing plays, the fact is that when he makes them, the opposition are instantly demoralised.

Moreover, though, the play of Kevin Durant off of Steph that tipped the balance.

There is a zero percent chance that you did not already know how good Kevin Durant is, either. Yet what discussion there has been, including here on GiveMeSport, as to how he has been playing sub-optimally this post season. Last night, however, that was not the case.

Durant finished the game with 26 points on an .825% true shooting percentage, alongside nine rebounds and seven assists. He did not force the issue to do so, either. Those possessions that happened all too often in the postseason, including game one of the Finals, in which Durant would dribble into mid-range shots or into traffic, stagnating the other fluid flow of the team's overall offence, were gone. To be sure, Durant still took some mid-range shots, including out of post-up possessions. But the player he was posting up was George Hill. The decisions were quicker, the passes sharper, the urgency higher, and the results greater.

At times this postseason, Durant has not stayed in the flow. Be it because of his go-to nature at all of Texas, Seattle and Oklahoma City, he moves little off the ball, perhaps in expectation of normally having it. To see this relative stagnancy compared to the Warriors' system around him was to see a player who, if he was not making his shots, looked immediately at fault. He would compound this by often pulling up early in the shot clock, often for extremely difficult looks, the kind of looks Steph Curry makes but without the offensive rebounding opportunities like Steph does when he takes them. Durant is the big man, after all.

This, however, is the point of him being here. Notwithstanding the fact that his perimeter scoring fluidity at his size is unrivalled in NBA history, and that he will go down as a Hall of Famer, Durant was targeted by the Warriors precisely because he can do his own thing.

In the Western Conference Finals, the Houston Rockets did a good job of being disciplined defensively, playing tough, and taking away the 'beautiful game' cut-and-pass-centric offensively fluidity that the Warriors have pioneered. When the Cavaliers "figured out" the same Warriors formula in the 2016 NBA Finals in the last three games, and forced them to play an ugly brand of basketball, the system no longer applied. Someone was needed to surpass it. Someone other than just Steph.

If a good defence takes away all the airspace when the player catches the ball, does a respectable job containing drives and fights hard, eventually the offensive team is going to have to resort to something more reliable and easier. That is to say, it needs someone who can score in isolation. To that end, they sought out Kevin Durant. The Warriors did not just need another Klay Thompson, a greased wheel to keep the system flowing when it was already working well. Instead, they needed someone for when it wasn't working at all.

And mostly, it has worked. If it wasn't for Durant being such a monster in isolation possessions - scoring more than 30 points in every game, including 38 on 14-20 shooting in the decisive game five - the Cavaliers might have been able to ride the same formula to an against-the-odds victory once again. Had they again taken away the beautiful game without having Durant as a safety valve, shooting ridiculous true shooting percentages on perpetually tough looks, Golden State would not be as good or as versatile as they are, and might have lost both last year's Finals and this year's first two games. Durant may have looked at fault, but he was an actor playing a part.

2018 NBA Finals - Game Two

In game two, Durant struck the right balance between Best Non-Steph Player In The System, and Guy Who Can Get His Own When Needs Be. Making quicker decisions, Durant sought out George Hill in the post, aimed to wear out LeBron in the post on both ends, played more physically, crashed the glass more decisively, and generally played with more urgency. He was still asked to get his own at times and do his turn as the primary ball-handler. But when he did so, he was finding Draymond Green on the roll, JaVale McGee for the dump-off or Curry for another quick trigger. And in catching the ball on the move more than when at a standstill, he was able to use his own gravity and be his own mini ecosystem.

The point of Durant in Golden State is not to be Steph. It is to be Durant.

The Cleveland Cavaliers disappointed defensively again by so often giving up the back line, not contesting many looks at the rim, and persisting with automatic switches of basically every Warriors action, thereby allowing them to pick and choose their match-ups at will. For all of Golden State's ability to break into Cleveland's house, the Cavaliers all too often left the front door wide open. But between Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, there are some things they will never be able to do anything about.

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