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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Mission Accomplished: Durant Leads Warriors to Championship-Clinching Game Five Victory

Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City because he thought that joining forces with the Golden State Warriors provided him with his best chance to win an NBA title. Whether or not you agree with Durant's reasoning, the record will forever show that in the first season after Durant made his move he led the Warriors to the NBA championship. Durant's Warriors faced the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA's first championship trilogy and the Warriors emerged victorious in five games to claim their second title in three years, capping off a 16-1 postseason run to join the 15-1 2001 L.A. Lakers and the 12-1 1983 Philadelphia 76ers as one-loss NBA champions.

Cleveland's record-setting game four win punctured the Warriors' dream of completing the NBA's only 16-0 playoff run but Durant made sure that the Cavaliers would not add a comeback from a 3-0 deficit to a resume that includes last season's comeback from a 3-1 deficit versus the Warriors. Durant finished game five with 39 points, seven rebounds and five assists while shooting 14-20 from the field; his .700 field goal percentage in a championship-clinching game is the best such mark in NBA Finals history with a minimum of 20 field goal attempts (and tied for fifth best overall regardless of the number of attempts). He earned the 2017 Finals MVP by averaging 35.2 ppg, 8.4 rpg and 5.4 apg while shooting .556 from the field. Durant joined Penny Hardaway and Chauncey Billups on the list of players who shot at least .500 from the field, at least .400 from three point range and at least .900 on free throws in an NBA Finals. He is just the third player (joining Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan) to win four scoring titles plus at least one NBA championship.

Stephen Curry added 34 points, 10 assists and six rebounds; he averaged 26.8 ppg, 9.4 apg and 8.0 rpg in the best of his three Finals performances, one that would be MVP-worthy in most seasons: he scored and passed at a high level while also asserting himself on the boards. Klay Thompson finished with just 11 points but he averaged a solid 16.4 ppg during the series while also playing great defense.

LeBron James scored a game-high 41 points, pulled down a game-high 13 rebounds and dished for eight assists. That pushed his series averages to 33.6 ppg, 12.0 rpg and 10.0 apg as James notched the first aggregate triple double in NBA Finals history. Kyrie Irving scored 26 points, slightly under his series average of 29.4 ppg. The third member of Cleveland's Big Three, Kevin Love, had six points and 10 rebounds, finishing the series with averages of 16.0 ppg and 11.2 rpg--not bad for a third option, though he will be the scapegoat for the media and for many fans.

The 4-1 margin suggests that the Warriors are vastly superior to the Cavaliers but the reality is that for long stretches the Cavaliers matched the Warriors shot for shot: Cleveland should have won game three after leading by six points with less than three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Cleveland dominated game four and Cleveland led for most of the first half of game five, so if the Cavaliers could have sustained focus for two more minutes in game three and about five minutes during the second quarter of game five then the Cavaliers could be up 3-2 and heading home with a chance to win back to back titles. What would the outcome have been if the Cavaliers had played as hard in games one and two as they did for most of games three through five? The problem is that when the best player on the team admittedly enters "chill mode" for stretches of the regular season it is not realistic to expect his teammates to play hard all of the time, either.

Brian Scalabrine of Sirius XM NBA Radio made an interesting point prior to game five: throughout NBA history, star players typically receive the blame or credit for the outcome of a championship series--but when James is involved, the media narrative often places the blame on his supporting cast. Scalabrine noted that James is supposed to be the best player on the planet and with that title comes the responsibility to carry a lot of weight in each game. James had a marvelous, record-breaking series statistically but the reality is that he is now just 3-5 in the NBA Finals and the series MVP award once again went to the player directly matched up against him.

In case the media forgot the prescribed narrative after Durant walked off with the MVP hardware, James repeatedly insisted during his postgame press conference that he had left it all on the court and done everything he could possibly do--which, of course, is a not so veiled way of saying, "We would have won a championship if my teammates had done more." That is not the message that great players typically deliver upon losing in the championship round. James' comments beg the question of whether or not he really did give his all--and anyone who watched the series (or checks the tape) knows that is not the case. Just during the game five telecast alone, Jeff Van Gundy repeatedly admonished James for  "standing, staring, watching" on defense. That theme is one that Van Gundy often repeats during playoff telecasts and I recall him providing the exact same criticism toward Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum years ago when they played for the Lakers; it is not recency bias to suggest that such a criticism could not accurately be applied to Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant during their Finals appearances.

Game five was a winnable game for Cleveland and a more introspective James would have acknowledged that those plays when he stood, stared and watched could have made a difference.

Cleveland led 37-33 after the first quarter on the strength of .625 shooting from the field. James and Irving scored 12 points each in the first stanza, as did Curry. The Cavaliers pushed that margin to 41-33 in the second quarter before the Warriors hit the Cavaliers with a 28-4 run. Near the end of that outburst, Irving missed a shot but tied up David West, who swung his elbow toward Irving's face and was immediately whistled for a technical foul. J.R. Smith pushed West, who by that time was jaw to jaw with Tristan Thompson. Smith and Thompson were each called for technical fouls, so the net result of the sequence was a Stephen Curry free throw followed by a jump ball between West and Irving.

James anticipated where West would tip the ball and then fired up a three pointer that cut the margin to 61-48. That was a great play, a championship level play, but James also has some inexcusable mental lapses--including (1) not even running past half court during a Golden State fastbreak when the Warriors missed the initial shot but then scored (Van Gundy called out James and Richard Jefferson on that play) and (2) standing rooted in place as Andre Iguodala drove to the hoop for an uncontested dunk. If James wants to argue that it is not reasonable to expect him to produce more than 41-13-8, then he might have a point--though it should also be noted that for most of the game he was the biggest and strongest player on the court as both teams went small--but his narrative that he left everything on the court and played hard every minute is demonstrably false.

J.R. Smith's late, long three pointer cut the margin to 71-60 just before the halftime buzzer. Durant scored 21 first half points on 7-10 field goal shooting and Curry added 20 points on 5-11 field goal shooting. James led Cleveland with 21 first half points on 9-15 field goal shooting.

Clearly, the game was still within reach for the Cavaliers. Indeed, James' offensive rebound and putback cut Golden State's lead to 79-71 in the third quarter. After that play, Van Gundy noted that in the first half James lacked energy at times, particularly on defense, but that this kind of play represented the energy level that the Cavaliers needed from James in order to win an NBA Finals road game. Early in the fourth quarter, a James layup pulled the Cavaliers to within 98-95 and a Kyle Korver three pointer at the 8:28 mark made the score 108-102 Golden State but down the stretch the Cavaliers committed too many defensive breakdowns and had too many empty possessions.

James scored 10 points in the final 7:18, all of them deep in the paint; as the biggest player on the court and with rules that prohibit defensive players from touching him, James is unstoppable, so the question is why did James wait until the waning moments to attack the paint that way? The Cavaliers sure could have used that kind of offense during Golden State's big second quarter run. James' 41 points are impressive but what would Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan or Julius Erving score under these rules and with no seven footers on the court? Erving averaged 30.3 ppg in the 1977 NBA Finals with Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas camped in the paint. Jordan averaged over 30 ppg during his Finals career despite having players draped all over him. Bryant averaged 28.6 ppg in the 2010 Finals versus the Boston Celtics, one of the last teams to consistently play physical defense. I don't care how long Durant is or how wily Thompson or Andre Iguodala are; those guys are not stopping Erving, Jordan or Bryant if they cannot touch them and if there is not a seven footer protecting the rim.

I used to always wonder why some people insisted that Bill Russell was better than Wilt Chamberlain despite the record-setting numbers that Chamberlain posted but watching LeBron James for over a decade has been eye-opening. While James ended the game by padding his scoring total with layups that would not change the outcome, I thought back to something that Russell once said: he claimed that after the result was decided, he would let Chamberlain score a few buckets to kind of soften Chamberlain up for the next time that they met. All Russell cared about was the final score, not his head to head individual numbers versus Chamberlain.

James is a marvelously gifted player and he had a great series by any quantifiable measure. Is it fair to expect him to produce even more points, rebounds and assists than he did? I guess the answer to that question depends on your perception of the responsibility that is carried by a Pantheon-level player and your perception of what opportunities are available to a great scorer playing under the current rules against lineups that typically do not feature a true big man protecting the paint.

Perhaps we are all guilty of missing the forest for the trees: there is a segment of the media that acts as if James has long since surpassed Bryant and is on the verge of surpassing Jordan, so as a historian of the game I feel duty-bound to refute those two notions--but maybe the real story here is how Durant's game has evolved from one dimensional shooter to multi-dimensional scorer who can also impact the game as a rebounder, passer and defender. While many of us are debating how to rank James within the Pantheon, Durant just "quietly" had one of the best Finals performances ever and that should not be overlooked. Durant is now as close to matching James' championship total as James is to matching Bryant's--and, barring unforeseen circumstances, it is certainly a distinct possibility that Durant will snare at least two more titles and two more Finals MVPs before his career is over.

As a competitive person and a lifelong NBA fan, I would have preferred to see Durant try to dethrone the Warriors instead of joining forces with them but I respect--and am impressed by--the way that Durant played this season, particularly how he outplayed James in the NBA Finals.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:48 AM