OAKLAND, Calif. – Kevin Durant had welcomed the Golden State Warriors’ contingent for a free-agency meeting last July, the perception of a possible departure from the Oklahoma City Thunder weighing on all. From Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala to Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, Durant heard: Let it go. Let it go. Beyond the sensitivity of leaving the Thunder, Durant’s reasoning to let go of Oklahoma City meant repositioning himself on a roster of closer partnerships, of competing once again in the NBA Finals against LeBron James.
The immortality of an NBA championship prevails, his Warriors teammates explained, and completing the task falls on the collective. Durant unleashed on the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday in a 113-91 blowout in Game 1 of the NBA Finals: 38 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and zero turnovers, with coast-to-coast dunks and long-range barrages. He’s been here before – up 1-0 against James and the Heat in the 2012 Finals – and these Warriors have validated his July decision at every turn. Russell Westbrook helped lead the Thunder with a tremendous season, arguably the best ever for a franchise that lost its franchise star for nothing in free agency, but Durant let go of contention for the Western Conference finals … for the NBA Finals.
Durant stood next to Green on Thursday night inside the Warriors’ locker room. “Day-Day,” Durant shouted. Green soon departed for the showers, and Durant left the room with one win and three to go. The final steps for Durant await.
“Hey, they’ll talk now and come at K.D. now, but who cares?” Green told The Vertical. “In five, 10 years, they’ll remember a ring. That’s it. K.D. knows. Versus you staying somewhere you’re not happy, just because you don’t want people to talk about you. What does that matter?
“At the end of the day, people only care about his decision because of who he is. You got to make the decision that makes you happy. Any trials and tribulations you go through, you don’t go through alone. You go through it with us. We’re in it with you. We know this series is going to be a battle against the defending champs.”
Everything Durant wanted out of these Warriors flashed before him: The roar of Oracle Arena, the allure of courtside celebrities, and waves upon waves of teammates making plays and creating victory possession by possession.
For all of Durant’s greatness, Stephen Curry has continued to become increasingly comfortable as a co-star as the season’s gone on. He poured in 28 points, hit six 3-pointers and had 10 assists and six rebounds, toying with Cavaliers defenders with his handle and vision. Green stuffed the stat sheet (nine points, 11 rebounds, two assists, one block), and Andre Iguodala elevated the Warriors’ pace and aggressiveness in his first-quarter stint and had a performance that exceeded his stat line (seven points, three rebounds and two steals).
“You know how scary things can be, especially when that 7-footer is coming at you full speed,” Iguodala said of Durant. “It’s pick your poison for us.”
For Durant and the Warriors, the balance between isolation and free-flowing offense has come with experience – positive and negative. The process is never ending, and for their part, the Warriors must now work to find Klay Thompson his rhythm and get him quality 3-point looks. Thompson remains elite defensively on the side of the court where no amount of missed shots can impact him. But in the end, Durant changes the dynamics of The Trilogy.
The difference of this series compared to 2016?
“K.D.,” James said. “You take one of the best teams that we had ever seen assembled last year, that we saw in the regular season and in the postseason, and then in the offseason you add a high-powered offensive talent like that … that’s what stands out.”
Durant has relished the pursuit for his first championship, his moment of truth. Yet he walked out of Oracle Arena late Thursday understanding that losses of any kind on this platform transform the Cavaliers. James and coach Tyronn Lue will adjust the game plans and schemes, and raise their ferocity and defensive resistance. They must find effective rotations and need more production and engagement from Tristan Thompson (zero points, four rebounds) and J.R. Smith (three points in 28 minutes).
Durant and the Warriors have been here before, combining to hold leads of 1-0, 2-0 and 3-1 against James in 2012, 2015 and 2016.
“You’re not going to see us getting ahead of ourselves,” Curry said Thursday.
One down, and three more victories needed for Golden State over the next possibly six games. Durant has changed everything for the Warriors’ edge over Cleveland, and they have so far validated his decision. A ring is a ring, the Warriors’ core four players told Durant last July. Let it go. He let go Thursday, and returned to an old stature: the best player on the same floor as LeBron and the early leader in the NBA Finals.
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