Cleveland — You can argue about how poetic the moment was, just as you can debate whether this was justice.
But for Kevin Durant, there was no denying how this felt, as he grabbed a rebound and loped up the court, the ball in his hand, the game on the line, and LeBron James, the four-time MVP and reigning King, standing in his way. He saw James’ feet behind the three-point arc, and he knew there was less than a minute to play. But he was at ease in transition, just as he has been all along this spring, strangely enough, the hero turned villain, the passenger now in the driver’s seat.
So as Durant walked into a three-point attempt — the kind he and his Golden State teammates take and make with such ease, tormenting the rest of the league as they do — he wasn’t thinking about what might go wrong.
“KD was like, ‘Nah, I’m taking this one,’ ” laughed Draymond Green, one of the Warriors who’d applied the full-court press to Durant in free agency last summer, showing up on his doorstep in the Hamptons. “And he stepped into it with confidence. … Not many people are taking that shot. But he knew he was taking that shot the whole way. That was huge. He wanted that moment.”
And, man, did he ever get it, burying a dagger into James and the Cleveland Cavaliers with what proved to be the winning shot in Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Wednesday night, and probably the decisive one in the series.
“I’ve been working on that shot my whole life,” said Durant, the four-time NBA scoring champ who is finishing his 12th season in the league. “And for that one to go in, that was liberating right there.”
Liberating. Validating. Whatever you want to call it, Durant’s 3-pointer with 45 seconds remaining put the Warriors up for good, 114-113, and likely cemented both the Cavs’ fate — no team in NBA history has ever come back from a 3-0 series deficit — and his own claim to NBA Finals MVP honors.
But more than that, it should undercut some of the critics who’d panned Durant’s decision to leave behind his home — and his humble claim to fame — in Oklahoma City to chase a championship with Golden State.
“That’s why they brought him here,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. “For those.”
Indeed, the notion that Durant is merely along for the ride seems laughable now, what with the versatile 7-footer dominating at every turn in this series, averaging 34 points, 10 rebounds and six assists while shooting 56 percent from the field in the Finals.
“You can tell, he knows this is his moment,” head coach Steve Kerr said. “He senses this is his time.”
And as his teammates explained to him from the start, this wasn’t just what he was missing. It’s what they were missing, too.
“Yeah, I actually told him earlier in the year — he might have got frustrated one time — but I said, “Hey, my friend, to be honest with you, we don’t really need you that much in the regular season. But you know when those NBA Finals come around, we’re really going to need you to play big for us,’ ” Green said. “He was like, ‘Ah, all right.’
“He’s been playing big for us, so I guess I’m a genius.”
It doesn’t take a genius to see what a difference-maker Durant has been for Golden State, the final piece that has turned a championship-caliber team into one that’s building a case as one of the NBA’s all-time best. Maybe the best, though that’ll be debated ad nauseam from here, as the Warriors try to complete a historic postseason sweep —16 wins without a defeat — Friday night here in Cleveland.
For Durant, though, this isn’t so much about history, or his place in it. Not yet, anyway. As he reminded everyone after Game 3, sitting next to Steph Curry on the dais inside Quicken Loans Arena well past midnight, this is all new to him.
“I’ve never been in this position, being up in The Finals and trying to close it out,” said Durant, whose Thunder only lasted five games in the 2012 Finals against James and his trend-setting “Big Three” in Miami. “So it’s an exciting time. The job’s not done. We still got a lot of work left to do.”
But what’s done is done, and even James seemed to acknowledge that after Wednesday’s loss, saying he’d left everything on the court — a game-high 39 points in 46 minutes confirmed as much, despite some curious late-game decisions — and admitting he’s never faced a “juggernaut” quite like this Warriors team.
We figured that might be the case when the “Slim Reaper” joined the “Splash Brothers” last July and formed a wholly-indefensible basketball trinity that could rule the NBA for years. But we couldn’t be sure until we saw it all play out like this. And if he’s being honest, Durant probably would say the same.
There were moments in the regular season where the egos clashed, and the stars weren’t quite aligned. And then when the playoffs began, there questions that still lingered.
Durant was the guy labeled “Mr. Unreliable” earlier in his career in Oklahoma City, the one who supposedly shied away from big moments, wasn’t he? And besides, this was the guy who was taking the easy way out by joining the Warriors, right?
Well, there he was Wednesday night, rising up and taking down the defending champs. Not by himself, mind you, but hardly acting deferential, scoring seven of the final 11 points — none of them easy — in the clutch. (“He was their closer tonight, for sure.,” said Kyrie Irving, the Cavs’ sensational point guard.)
And now here he is, one win away from an elusive title, “and I think,” Kerr said, smiling, as he summed up more than just Durant’s night, “he’s having the time of his life out there.”