Eleven months ago, Kevin Durant changed the NBA landscape by leaving the Thunder to join the Golden State Warriors and form the best team ever on paper.
Eleven months later, he changed it again… Winning the 2017 Finals and claiming the MVP trophy of the series by going head to head with one of the league’s four best players ever and coming out on top.
The 2nd sentence erodes all criticism Durant received 11 months ago. Yeah, Durant had to join a 73 win team to get his ring. But Golden State couldn’t have done it with out him, and with the way Durant played in this series, there’s a chance he could have done it by himself… that is, beat the Cavaliers and LeBron James.
In my NBA Finals preview, I concluded that if Golden State won this series, it would strictly be due to a phenomenal defensive performance by Durant. He would be tasked with shutting down LeBron, allowing Golden State to switch on and off of Kyrie Irving and discombobulating Cleveland’s offense. It was the key to the series.
I had my doubts. There was a time when I thought about picking Cleveland. Durant is a great defender, but did I really think he could shut down LeBron four times?
Durant didn’t really “shut down” LeBron though. James became the first player ever to average a triple double in the Finals. But the stats are misleading. What makes LeBron LeBron is the ability to takeover the game, the ability to affect the game invisibly, the ability to make an impact on things that we can’t see. At this point, it’s a spiritual thing with him.
That spiritual presence wasn’t there this series, and thats the tiny difference, thanks to Durant’s defense, that won the Warriors the Finals.
In Games 1+2, Golden State was playing at 110% on all ends. LeBron’s numbers were still insane: 28 points, 15 rebounds and 8 assists in Game 1 and 29-11-14 in Game 2. But, matched against Golden State’s offensive attack (Which Cleveland never ever had a chance at stopping), it was too much and put the Cavs in a 2-0 hole.
Game 3 was a different story. It wasn’t Golden State’s best game, but it also wasn’t as “poorly” played as Game 4 was (For lack of a better word, Golden State never played poorly in this series.). For the Cavs though, that was their moment. Game 3 belonged to Cleveland; I thought it was their best game of the series. LeBron and Kyrie were amazing; LeBron looked better than KD for the first time. Cleveland also adjusted on offense, using Stephen Curry as much as possible in the pick-and-roll to force mismatches and get easy baskets. Yet Golden State was relentless, hitting threes like it was nothing and soon enough took the lead back.
The narrative out of Game 3 was that Cleveland blew it. But, the Cavs’ largest lead was only seven points. Newsflash: Thats not really a lead against the Warriors. They can hit two threes on back-to-back possessions and it’s a close game again. They are never out of any game and Game 3 was another example of that.
In Game 4, Cleveland finally got a break. LeBron and Kyrie were amazing again, but as the series had previously suggested, the Cavs needed more. Game 4 was the JR Smith game, an event that was completely forgotten about as a possible scenario in this series but also totally inevitable at some point. That role player performance was one that was desperately needed by Cleveland. Unfortunately for the Cavs though, it never came again. JR Smith’s Game 4 was a one-timer, a common trait of Cleveland’s role players this whole postseason.
The Cavs win in Game 4 wasn’t totally guaranteed even with JR’s explosion. Golden State only shot 28% from three that night. That stat right there is all you need to know as to why Cleveland won, but it also works both fronts. Cleveland got pretty lucky that Golden State was off shooting-wise. We could be looking at a sweep if the Warriors weren’t a sloppy mess.
Game 5 felt a lot like Game 3, a close-knit game until Golden State went on one of those runs and never gave the lead back up. What kept it interesting was Cleveland’s never ending yet still lackluster resilience. It wasn’t until the three minute mark of the 4th quarter that I felt confident in Golden State winning, as I thought LeBron would pull something together and make the series interesting.
It didn’t happen, and Golden State won the title for the 2nd time in three years, completing the best three year run ever by number of wins and collection of talent. It’s been ridiculous, and it’s not ending any time soon.
Kevin Durant leaves this series with three new accomplishments: A ring, a good case for being the best player in the league, and a top 30 ranking all-time. Don’t tell me you expected that to happen coming into these Finals.
I’m not sure KD is the best player in the league, but the case is pretty good. I mean, he did just beat the best player in the world on both ends to win a series. He won Finals MVP while being guarded by LeBron. He was the sole reason Golden State won the series.
As for all-time, Durant’s one of the best pure scorers this league has ever seen. In that ranking he’s probably in the top six or seven.
In the GOATS ranking, Durant is making his way up (Yes, it needs some updating. Thats one of my Summer projects). Name six forwards you’d rather have all-time than KD. Bird, LeBron, Duncan, Erving, Baylor?? Thats it for me. Oh, and Durant’s only 28. Elgin Baylor and the Doc are gonna be feeling the heat soon.
As for the Cavs and LeBron, big changes could be on the way. Cleveland has to choose between Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson. The two can play together fine, but Love is not a good defender and has no chance against the athleticism of a team like Golden State. Flipping one of those guys for a more athletic, defensively-oriented 3-and-D guy is a very real possibility this Summer. I don’t think Paul George is the answer; he needs shots and is a poor defender. Melo makes absolutely zero sense. Would the Cavs do a sign-and-trade for Otto Porter and send Kevin Love to Washington?? Porter would have to take much less money, but trading that to play with LeBron and be title contenders is logical.
Cleveland’s problems are deep. Even the Porter scenario is unlikely. Locked into contracts like Iman Shumpert’s and J.R. Smith’s, this Cavs team isn’t set up to acquire a a good player making a decent amount of money. There’s not a way for them to get any better.
That sets up a dangerous scenario in the Summer of 2018. LeBron is a free agent, and as we saw via multiple stories that dropped during the Finals, him leaving again is not inconceivable whatsoever. The Lakers, Clippers, or a Banana Boat hookup somewhere is a very real possibility.
As for LeBron’s legacy, this Finals loss doesn’t hurt him, but it certainly doesn’t help. I have LeBron ranked 4th all-time. He’s probably 3rd, as Bill Russell’s runner-up ranking is probably too high (A mistake that will be fixed this Summer).
If LeBron’s the best player of all-time, he’d be 7-1 in the Finals. Sorry, but thats the criteria. Five times he’s been beat and hasn’t been good enough. If you’re the GOAT, then anything is possible. For LeBron, that hasn’t been the cases.
The counter is that Golden State was too loaded, and that LeBron was tasked with playing against the best team ever.
We make a ton of excuses for LeBron. It’s true. For now, I can’t put him above No.3. I’m holding strong.
These Finals weren’t amazing. Golden State handled Cleveland pretty easily. But the impact these Finals will have will loom, whether it’s this Summer, next season, or the 3rd Summer of LeBron in 2018.