OAKLAND, Calif. — Ever since Kevin Durant decided last summer to take his wondrous talents to the East Bay, the Golden State Warriors have been the unstoppable force most anticipated. Their 22-point blowout of the defending champion Cavaliers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals was a showcase for Durant, who had 38 points, eight rebounds and eight assists and helped force eight turnovers by LeBron James, the superstar he’s trying to replace as the best player in the game.
The Warriors are 13-0 heading into Game 2 on Sunday night at Oracle Arena, a mark no team in NBA history achieved previously, and even though Durant missed a couple of first-round games with a calf strain, his presence has made the Warriors downright scary.
As forward Draymond Green said yesterday of the impact Durant has made: “He’s a huge factor. He adds an element to this team that not many people can add to a team. He’s a big part of what we’re doing and the reason we are having the run we’re having.”
James himself said much the same thing after Game 1. He ascribed the loss to the Cavaliers’ failure to stop Durant in transition when he got the ball at midcourt and repeatedly drove to the rim for dunks because the Cavs fanned out to defend the three-point line. Everyone knows the Cavs’ focus will be squarely on stopping Durant when he has the ball in his hands in Game 2.
“They will be way more physical,” Durant said yesterday. “They’re going to try to get their three-point shooters going and rebound the ball. They’re going to try to get more offensive rebounds. They’re just going to muck the game up and be physical. We have to come out and be even more physical than we were in Game 1. We have to be better at finishing around the rim. We can’t leave points on the table.”
Whatever questions people had last summer about how Durant would fit into an All-Star cast that already included the likes of two-time MVP Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Green have been answered. Maybe some underestimated the unselfishness of Durant, whose defensive prowess and willingness to move the ball have made him a perfect fit for the Warriors. There have been some adjustments in terms of spreading the scoring load, but everyone has worked together because, as Green recently said, the Warriors are trying to build a dynasty.
“It’s been pretty natural, real ly,” Curry said. “We talked about it all year long. You don’t really have to force much of the infusion of K.D. into your lineup. He’s an efficient basketball player, a high-IQ guy, fits right into the mold of what we do here. We have gotten better as the year has gone on. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, but there’s been a collective mindset of just understanding what we all bring to the table, understanding that we don’t need to sacrifice anything, that we can all be ourselves, be as aggressive as we can be on the floor, and that we all complement each other very well.
“We hit our stride probably after the new year, and obviously when K.D. got hurt, we had to kind of readjust and try to do it in his absence. I think that made us better when he came back because he’s obviously such an efficient unique scorer in this league that he doesn’t require much when it comes to getting him the ball in certain spots. But we work around those other opportunities, myself, Klay, Draymond, knowing that ball’s going to be hopping and we have so many threats.”
If there was a moment that sent a shiver through the Warriors’ organization this season, it came Feb. 28 in Washington when Durant hurt his left knee in the second minute of that game. He was taken to a local hospital, and the initial diagnosis was a season-ending fractured tibia. Durant called Green after the game to deliver the bad news.
“I talked to him on the phone right after the game, and he told me what was going on,” Green said. “The emotions are everywhere when something like that happens. You’re talking about what we think could be [a title] could possibly not happen. It was obviously good to get the news that it wasn’t as serious. But for a moment, it was pretty rough news.”
A few minutes after his call to Green, Durant got an update from his doctors, who said it was a sprained medial collateral ligament and that he would return in time for the playoffs.
Including the game in which Durant was injured, the Warriors went 2-5, their worst stretch of the season. They had to adjust after becoming accustomed, Green said, to being able to throw Durant the ball and say, “Go get us a bucket.”
Durant missed 19 games but quickly got back up to speed. Counting the regular season, the Warriors are 28-1 in their past 29 games.
“I just tried to not hang my head because of it and come back as strong as I can,” Durant said of his injury. “I had to adjust and play the rust off a little bit. I was out for a month, and so I was just making sure my timing was right, my touch on my shot was right, my wind. I just tried to make sure all that stuff was right before we got to the playoffs. And it took a couple games for me to get it back, but I felt good once we started.”
One of the story lines entering the Finals was that no one would be under more pressure than Durant because of his decision to join the Warriors as the difference-maker. But that overlooks how hard he works to prepare himself to handle that pressure. Greatness was Durant’s goal long before he signed as a free agent, and he has found like company with the Warriors.
Describing his relationship with Curry, Durant said: “You want to know why Steph is one of the best players in the world, one of the best players ever. You just want to know how hard they work. You want to know how serious they take it. Day one, when I came in, I see his work after practice, after shootarounds and how regimented it is. He’s like a robot. I think, in order for you to be good in this league, it has to be an everyday thing. And it is with him.
“I think that he’s taken it to another level in just trying to challenge himself. And I try to do the same things. We challenge each other as well. So it’s been a great dynamic.”
The result of Game 1 certainly was proof of that. But there still is a long way to go to crown a champion, and the pressure will be ratcheted up, not only by the Cavaliers but by Durant himself.
“I’m just trying to be the best me I can be,” he said. “That’s the only pressure I worry about. If I don’t play up to my standards, that’s when I get upset. It’s just a matter of me working extremely hard on my game and trying to showcase it.”
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