CLEVELAND — Kevin Durant pulled down a defensive rebound and headed up the court. The Golden State Warriors were down by two with less than a minute to play in a hostile Quicken Loans Arena.
Waiting for him on the other end of the court was LeBron James.
The Warriors’ 6-foot-11 small forward didn’t survey the court. He wasn’t looking to set up a play. He wasn’t calling a timeout. He dribbled right toward James and, without hesitation, pulled up for a 26-foot 3-pointer that found nothing but the net.
That audacious shot single-handedly crushed the Cleveland Cavaliers’ spirits and, from there, crushed what’s left of the Cavs’ season.
“He knew he was taking that shot the whole way,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said. “That was huge. He wanted that moment.”
Durant’s arrival into this rivalry has placed the Warriors on the verge of returning the favor to the Cavaliers. An historic 3-1 comeback by the Cavs a year ago is close to being upstaged by not only a sweep of the series, but also a never-before sweep of the playoffs.
“Now that we’re in this situation, why not take care of business and finish the job,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said.
Golden State won Game 3 of the NBA Finals on Wednesday night, 118-113. Durant poured in 14 of his team-high 31 points in the final quarter to go with eight boards and four assists. The Warriors are one win away from collecting their second Larry O’Brien trophy in the past three years.
Durant has been criticized in the past for shying away from the big moment, and being intimidated by situations that could potentially lead to massive failure.
That narrative is rapidly disintegrating. He’s outperforming James in the fourth quarters this series, with a scoring output of 31 to 11. Durant has shot 13-of-21 for 31 points when defended by James. Those are the most points Durant has scored on any defender in the playoffs, surpassing the 29 points he scored against Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward.
Ever since the Utah Jazz series in the second round, Durant began increasing his workout regimen during morning shootarounds and has continued it throughout the rest of the playoffs, a source told ESPN.
And his demeanor has shifted from easy-going and talkative, to calm and standoff-ish. Those close to him say they’ve never seen him in this space before. Durant understands the magnitude of what’s at stake in these Finals and he’s determined to swing for the fences.
“He took over,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “You can tell, he knows this is his moment. He’s been an amazing player in this league for a long time and I think he senses this is his time, his moment, his team.”
It was the biggest basket of the season for the Warriors, but Durant refused to revel in the enjoyment of sinking that shot on such a grand stage, and on such a grand opponent.
“We’re still playing,” Durant told ESPN. “This isn’t over. I can’t say if it’s the biggest.”
James was right: Durant is the difference-maker of this robust Warriors squad. Teaming up with three All-Stars has made life miserable for James, the four-time Finals MVP.
“It’s probably the most, most firepower I’ve played [against] in my career,” James said. “I played against some great teams, but I don’t think no team has had this type of firepower.”
When there was approximately 6 minutes, 30 seconds left in the game with the Warriors trailing 104-99, Kerr, ESPN was informed, told his team that they were capable of rattling off 20 more points and stealing this game.
They put up 19, and outscored the Cavaliers 11-0 in the final 2:45. Durant (seven) and Stephen Curry (four) scored all the points during that span.
It has come back full circle: The Warriors didn’t score in the final 4:39 of last year’s Finals Game 7. On Wednesday, the Cavaliers failed to score in the last 3:09.
Durant has scored at least 25 points in all eight of his NBA Finals games. He’s one of only three players in NBA history to accomplish that feat in each of their first eight Finals games along with Shaquille O’Neal (21 straight) and Michael Jordan (20).
His scoring has been needed.
San Antonio Spurs.
But Durant said this isn’t the time to get complacent.
“It’s not over,” he said. “Job’s not done. … We still got a lot of work left to do.”
In this series, he has been the real MVP.
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