With an All-Star team around him, it’s sometimes easy to forget Kevin Durant has the ability to take control of a game. He didn’t have to go it alone the entire time in Monday’s Western Conference finals opener; Klay Thompson’s precision and Draymond Green’s defense helped Golden State win in decisive fashion in Houston, 119-106. But for elongated stretches, it felt like the entire offense could’ve just been Durant and the hoop. His performance reminded everyone, especially the Rockets, just how little can be done against him when the switch is flipped.
It was cruel that the 37-point show KD put on upstaged James Harden’s. Houston’s tireless leader finished with 41 points, made it to the line 10 times, and sunk five 3s against the Warriors’ relentless defense. Harden worked for every shot he got off and every drive he pursued, catching a slight break only when it was Steph Curry in his path. Afterward, Harden could barely muster any answers:
James Harden wasn't exactly in a talkative mood tonight pic.twitter.com/gGp78aX5Z0— Dan Feldman (@DanFeldmanNBA) May 15, 2018
Durant, meanwhile, made it look easy. There wasn’t a single Rocket that contested KD and regularly came out on top. He rained on Harden, which was no surprise; he set Chris Paul up for failure like each possession was a Ponzi scheme pitch. (CP3 got so flustered that, at one point in the game, he elbowed Durant in the butt.) Multiple times, Clint Capela or Luc Mbah a Moute played as sound one-on-one defense as one can, but the shots still fell in their faces. When Durant is at his peak, his stroke is so smooth that the points are almost matter of fact. He’s the sculptor; the game is the block of stone. Give KD 40-or-so minutes and he’ll discover the statue inside of it.
To add insult to injury, Durant was roasting Houston from midrange with more than half of his made field goals (nine) coming from the very spots Mike D’Antoni wants his offense to eliminate. It turns out that shot is very efficient coming from the best scorer in the league.
Durant simultaneously kept his cool and gave the impression from the jump that he was out for blood. It was an arrogance that’s been mostly absent this season, despite landmarks like having a 50-point game in February. Chill Durant was far more present than Finals Durant; even before the season began, it sounded like his personal goal was to make the All-Defensive team, not win MVP. (All-Defense is nothing to look down at, but for arguably one of the most lethal active players, it seems a tad unambitious.) Last November, Durant said he didn’t “want to have to be the leader.” But in Game 1, with Curry going 1-for-5 from the 3 and largely being a nonfactor, we saw something that hasn’t been seen in some time: KD fully unleashed.
Harden did go bucket for bucket with Durant; both made 14 shots, and Harden did so on fewer field goal attempts. But not even the MVP of a team constructed to beat the Warriors can slow them down when Durant decides to go into full–Finals MVP mode like he did Monday. It was painfully evident that Paul struggled at points in the game, despite ending with 23 points and 11 rebounds. The Rockets were built with precision, but they need every cog operable—Eric Gordon hitting shots, Trevor Ariza doing anything positive on offense and staying out of foul trouble, Capela dominating inside—to win the series. Golden State just needs this Durant.