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Thursday, June 07, 2018

Kevin Durant Leads the Way as Golden State Takes a Commanding 3-0 Lead Over Cleveland

Kevin Durant scored a playoff career-high 43 points as his Golden State Warriors withstood a fast start by the Cleveland Cavaliers to post a 110-102 win and take a 3-0 NBA Finals lead. It had seemed like Stephen Curry was cruising toward his first Finals MVP--one of the few significant individual honors that Curry has not won--but now Durant has at least entered that discussion after shooting 15-23 from the field while grabbing a game-high tying 13 rebounds and dishing for seven assists. Durant shot 6-9 from three point range, including the 30-plus foot trey with less than 50 seconds remaining that gave the Warriors a 106-100 lead. Durant posted a game-high +15 plus/minus number and he has scored at least 25 points in each of his 13 career Finals games.

Remarkably, no other Warrior scored more than 11 points, though five Warriors reached double figures. Curry had a miserable shooting performance (3-16 from the field, including 1-10 from three point range just one game after setting a Finals single-game record with nine three pointers made), finishing with 11 points, six assists and five rebounds. Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, JaVale McGee and Jordan Bell had 10 points each. McGee had a significant impact despite playing just 14 minutes; he shot 5-7 from the field and played a key role in Golden State's early third quarter run that transformed a 58-52 Cleveland halftime lead into a 69-64 Golden State lead. Bell shot 4-5 from the field and had six rebounds in 12 minutes off of the bench, while Green shot 4-8 from the field and snared nine rebounds. Thompson's numbers were pedestrian (4-11 field goal shooting, four rebounds) but he tied Andre Iguodala (eight points, two rebounds in 22 minutes in his 2018 Finals debut after missing the past six playoff games due to injury) with a +14 plus/minus number.

LeBron James had 33 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds in what must be one of the emptiest triple doubles in NBA Finals history. As ABC's Jeff Van Gundy said late in the contest, "James has not been great tonight. He needs to be great in the last 4:45..He’s going to have to bring them home by living in the paint." Golden State led 94-93 at that point. During those final minutes as the curtain essentially fell on Cleveland's season, James scored five points but attempted just two shots in the paint. At the 3:21 mark, with Golden State clinging to a 96-95 advantage, James inexplicably fired up an errant three point attempt from well behind the arc, prompting Mark Jackson to state the obvious, "That’s a bad shot."

This is not about nitpicking the details of what superficially was a strong individual performance; the point is that there is a big difference between posting good numbers and having an impact on the outcome of the game. James has long had a paradoxical tendency to put up statistics that look great but--upon examination--did not have much impact. James also did much of his work early (he had nine of his assists and six of his rebounds in the first half) while fading down the stretch. His supporters will say that he became fatigued from the weight of carrying his team (he played 47 minutes), while his critics will say that this is yet another example of him not delivering with a Finals game on the line; the truth may be somewhere in between, but the reality--as I noted last year after Golden State took a 3-0 Finals lead over Cleveland en route to a 4-1 win--is that a player who it has become fashionable to call "the greatest of all-time" has one of the worst Finals winning percentages among the serious contenders for that title: for instance, Bill Russell went 11-1, Michael Jordan went 6-0, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar went 6-4, Magic Johnson went 5-4, Larry Bird went 3-2 and Julius Erving went 3-3.

At the start, it looked like the Cavaliers might win at home and possibly turn this into a series instead of the coronation of a Warriors dynasty that is now poised to capture a third title in four seasons. The Cavaliers jumped out to a 16-4 lead by playing with great physicality and aggression (though, oddly, they did not attempt a single free throw during the first half). Durant kept the Warriors in touch by scoring 13 first quarter points on 4-4 field goal shooting and Golden State trimmed the margin to 29-28 by the end of the first stanza.

The Cavaliers rebuilt their lead to 45-35 in the second quarter but even at that point I wondered if the Cavaliers were committed to making this a competitive series or if they were just satisfied with not being blown out/not being swept. Cleveland led 58-52 at halftime, but it was apparent that Durant was in the midst of authoring a signature performance as he already had 24 points on 7-8 field goal shooting while the other Golden State starters had combined for just 13 points on 5-20 field goal shooting. For all of the talk about how poor James' supporting cast supposedly is, the Cavaliers led for most of game one and they led for most of game three as well; what the Cavaliers lack is the ability to finish, as demonstrated by their collapses at the conclusion of both of those contests. Those are the moments when a "greatest player of all-time" candidate should shine. The end of game one has been discussed ad infinitum and is not entirely James' fault--but he should have attacked the hoop instead of giving up the ball (which resulted in the fateful George Hill free throws) and he still had a chance to lead Cleveland to victory in overtime instead of succumbing to a double digit loss.

Kevin Love supported James with 20 points and a game-high tying 13 rebounds. He attacked the hoop strongly early in the game (15 points, 10 rebounds, 6-10 field goal shooting in the first half) but--like all of James' teammates over the years--he is dependent on getting the ball from the "pass first" James, who launched a game-high 28 field goal attempts (five more than Durant and 15 more than Love), including 1-6 shooting from three point range. I have always said that the best player should willingly shoulder the burden of taking the most shots, so I cannot criticize James too much for shooting that often--but it should be noted that the media typically lets James off of the hook for doing the same things that result in other great players being labeled as "selfish" gunners who supposedly do not "make their teammates better." Like all great players, James ideally should walk the fine line of leading the way in scoring while also keeping his teammates involved.

Yet, somehow, James is often not the best player on the court or the central figure in the action when the NBA Finals are decided. One could argue that his team is simply outgunned in this series but then how does one explain James losing to Dirk Nowitzki's Mavericks in the 2011 Finals when James had two future Hall of Famers in their primes (Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) while Nowitzki had Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, Tyson Chandler and the ghost of Jason Kidd (a future Hall of Famer to be sure, but one who was 38 years old at that time)?

If the Cavaliers had held serve at home in games three and four, then they would have just needed one road win in game five to put a lot of pressure on the Warriors. It is evident that Golden State has the better team but by the same token it is also evident that when the Cavaliers slow the game down, play physically and avoid turnovers they can more than hold their own.

Cleveland's halftime lead evaporated early in the third quarter. McGee scored six points in a 9-3 run as the Warriors tied the score. Curry then connected on a pair of free throws to put Golden State up 63-61, the Warriors' first lead of the game.

The margin remained close the rest of the way but Durant made most of the big plays down the stretch. As Van Gundy noted, in the closing moments the Warriors set "fake" screens for Durant and James willingly switched off of Durant, creating unnecessary mismatches. It is not clear why James did not accept the challenge of guarding Durant on those crucial possessions.

The Cavaliers are capable of winning game four to avoid the sweep but--barring significant injuries or some other unlikely occurrence--this series is over and the countdown for James' free agency decision has started; after inducing the Cavaliers to go deep into luxury tax territory without providing any assurance that he would stay (thus making it practically impossible to add another star to the roster), James may leave the team that he created to seek glory by joining forces with stars on another contender. After all, that is the route that Durant took (imitating what James did the first time that he left Cleveland) and Durant is about to win his second ring at James' expense.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:15 AM



At Thursday, June 07, 2018 1:05:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Curry is definitely not going to win Finals MVP currently. He's a very distant 3rd best player in the series at best, which has been the case in each of his 4 Finals, too.

At Friday, June 08, 2018 4:49:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I don't think I have ever seen James take on a defensive assignment upon himself and be like "I am going to stop him". And yet media regards him as a "great" defensive player. You expect the best player on your team let alone in the world to step up and guard the opposing team's best player. Jordan did it most of his early career he was able to relieve some load during their second 3peat with Pippen taking most of the defensive assignment. Bryant did it basically his entire career with the exception of 09 when they had Ariza and 10 with Artest.

I agree with you on arguably the most emptiest triple double in finals history. Fans and media who either doesn't understand or watch the game would look at his stats and say he was great but his teammates were crap. He was way too passive in the fourth and passing up on mismatches to guys like Love and Thompson. Another thing that numbers don't show is when you score the points. In my view, James rarely ever takes over when the opposing goes on a run to stop the bleeding and also rarely scores when the moment calls for him to step up. He will somehow someway fill the stat sheet but the numbers just doesn't reflect his actual impact. As great as he was in Game 1 I felt like Durant was more "impactful" than he was because he scored when the Warriors needed a basket i.e. second quarter and also in the fourth.

At Friday, June 08, 2018 9:53:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

Obviously a great Durant game-- probably his best ever-- but I continue to feel it's not especially fair to kill Lebron for losing to this team, especially given the load he's carrying.

I was disappointed to see him not wave off switches vs. KD-- he's the only guy on their team who can guard him, and did so pretty well as recently as G1-- but again, the combination of minutes/usage/age is so cartoonishly through the roof that I can't exactly blame him.

It's pretty telling that GSW can still win when Curry and Thompson (or Durant, for that matter, in other games) are virtual no-shows. That team is so damn loaded.

Kevin Love continues his trend of having a great first half and no second half. If I were Ty Lue, I'd call his number a little more often in the back 24.

This feels like a sweep unless Scott "The Extender" Foster is on the officiating crew tonight.

At Saturday, June 09, 2018 1:58:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nick, stop with the conspiracy theories.

It's hard to expect James to lead his team to a title against GS, but then again, KD is outplaying him again for the 2nd straight Finals. And the only time James has beaten GS is when Irving outplayed Curry. James is pretty clearly top 10 all-time, but the amount of help he needs is ridiculous and much more than most of the elite players of all-time have needed. And he isn't afforded all the excuses when KD is outplaying and certainly not when Iggy outplayed him in 2015.


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