CLEVELAND — Playing with Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder, Kevin Durant had gone as far as he believed he could. He needed a change, and he wanted a chance to win the championship that had eluded him.
So he joined the Golden State Warriors. And 11 months later, Durant was on the verge of filling that void Friday night.
The Warriors took the floor for Game 4 of the NBA Finals looking to complete the sweep of the Cavaliers and the postseason. No team had ever gone 16-0 in the playoffs, but the Warriors had a shot because of Durant.
For all the talk of Golden State being hungry to avenge last year’s Finals collapse, Durant might be the hungriest Warrior.
“He doesn’t have a ring yet,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said before the game. “He knows this is his best chance so far in his career. He’s right there. He wants to get it done.”
Kerr has talked about Durant sensing that this is his moment and his time. He had played superbly on both ends of the floor in the first three games and was likely to earn series MVP honors along with his ring.
Durant had at least 31 points in all three games and scored seven straight in the last 1:15 to help the Warriors earn a 118-113 victory in Game 3. He hit the go-ahead three-pointer with 45.3 seconds left during a game-clinching 11-0 run.
It’s easy to say this was exactly what the former MVP and four-time scoring champ envisioned when he made the career-altering decision to sign with Golden State, but no one could have envisioned this kind of dominance.
“I didn’t envision anything but being around good people and getting better every single day,” Durant said. “I didn’t talk to these guys when I made my decision and say, ‘We better make it to the Finals and be up in the series around this time, this exact date, or I’m not coming.’ It was just let’s just have some fun playing ball, let’s just all get better and let’s see what happens.”
What’s happened is the Warriors look like a team that could rule the league for many years. The rest of the NBA is trying to figure out whether to build for next year or for a few years down the road, because the Warriors look as if they could become a dynasty.
The Cavaliers, last year’s champions, were overmatched and overwhelmed in the first three games. LeBron James said he’s never played a team with more firepower than these Warriors.
Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green led the Warriors to the NBA championship two years ago and an NBA-record 73 victories last season. Then they added Durant, arguably the second-best player in the game.
“As it stands right now, they look pretty good as far as the future,” James said.
Durant was heavily criticized for not sticking it out with Westbrook and the Thunder, the franchise with which he played his first nine years. But when James finally won his first ring by beating Durant’s Thunder in 2012 — his second season with the Heat after leaving the Cavaliers — most of the criticism he received for his change of teams went away. He was celebrated.
Durant already has been celebrated for his play, passion and drive in this series. He has fit right in with the Warriors and their approach.
Dropping the last three games to the Cavaliers last year and becoming the first team to squander a 3-1 lead in the Finals has made the Warriors more focused. Their last loss was April 10. They’ve won 30 of their last 31 games dating to the regular season.
As painful as that experience was last year, Kerr believed it helped the Warriors in the long run and that they’ve grown from it.
“It’s mostly about maturity,” Kerr said. “We’ve been here three years in a row. We’re experienced now. We’re better. We’re a better team. We’re more talented with KD, obviously. But we’re also smarter and wiser. We’ve been through the wars both good and bad. I think we’re better prepared for this moment.”