Quicken Loans Arena was loud for much of Game 3 on Wednesday night in Cleveland, but time after time, the noise and enthusiasm was dampened by one Kevin Durant, who put on a performance of a lifetime, scoring a playoff career-high 43 points in 43 minutes. All night, it was ridiculous shot after ridiculous shot. And then, with the game winding down, he made the crowd go quiet for good with one more.
The pull-up 3-pointer with less than a minute to put the game away. You’ll recall that Durant hit a similar shot in a similar situation in last year’s finals from almost the exact same spot. When they needed him most, Durant responded—again. Durant was a monster in Game 3 to help the Warriors win 110-102 and put a 3-0 stranglehold on the series.
“It’s a different game, different season, different feel, different vibe around the team,” Durant said about the similarities between Wednesday’s big shot and the one from a year ago. “Everything is just different. … If my shots were there, I just take them patiently and with poise. I found some good spots.”
It was all right there for the Cavaliers. J.R. Smith hit some big shots on offense (though his defense was lacking). Rodney Hood, who played just four minutes in the first two games of the series, emerged from his postseason slumber and made a positive impression for the first time in a while. Kevin Love had a double-double. LeBron James had a triple-double. The Cavaliers were at home, and the building was loud. The Cavs had it—and then Kevin Durant took it away.
KD started hot and got hotter. He had 13 points in the first quarter and all seven of the Warriors rebounds in that frame. It was him versus everyone else in the first half; he had 24 points at the break—including a deep 3-ball in Larry Nance Jr.’s face right at the buzzer.
“That was amazing what he did out there tonight,” Steve Kerr said after the game. “I don’t think anybody in the world can hit those but him. He was incredible.”
KD also grabbed 13 rebounds and had seven assists, one of which was a nice look to Draymond Green. (In fairness, one of those assists probably should have been credited to Smith, who made it possible when he got lost while guarding KD.) Durant was everywhere on Wednesday evening. He even offered Nick Young some friendly in-game advice.
Durant has now scored 25 or more points in his first 13 NBA Finals games, joining Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal as the only players to do so. He also became just the third player in postseason history, along with Shaq and LeBron, to score 3,000 points and record 1,000 rebounds before turning 30.
It’s notable that his biggest game of this series came when the rest of his teammates, particularly Steph Curry, were largely absent from the effort. Durant went 6-for-9 from 3 while the rest of the Warriors shot 3-for-17. That included a dreadful shooting night from Curry. One game after he made an NBA Finals record nine 3s, Curry started 0-for-9 from 3-point range and hit his only shot from distance with less than three minutes remaining in the game. As Ty Lue said afterward, “you would think you would win that game” if you’re the Cavs in that situation. But just as Curry receded into the shadows, Durant grabbed the spotlight.
“Well,” Kerr said, “this is the beauty of this team and the luxury of having multiple big-time scorers.”
It is. But Durant putting on the best postseason performance of his career while Curry arguably has his worst is the kind of tinder that gets people talking about who’s the real alpha male on a team full of them. It’s the last semi-interesting story line on a team that’s so good we’ve always known how this would end. After the first two games, Curry took full control of the narrative: He’s mere games away from snatching his first Finals MVP. In Game 3, almost everything flipped. Now it seems that Durant might prefer to hold onto the award he won last season for another year. The only real competition these Warriors have is themselves, and it’s been like that for a while now—though no one on Golden State would admit it or even hint at it.
Kerr was asked several times during the playoffs about Curry and KD and how they determine who takes over in a given moment. Each time he’s given the diplomatic answer. That’s what happened when the issue was broached once again between games 2 and 3.
“There is just a sense that we’re all on the same team and nobody cares about whose team it is and all that stuff,” Kerr said. “Our guys just play. There have been games where KD has had to take over. There have been games where Steph takes over. And there are lots of games in between.”
After Game 3, Durant said he loves how the Warriors support each other with “a real childlike approach to the game.” He said that’s rare in the NBA because they’re all professionals, and he appreciated it. It was a nice sentiment, but it probably won’t make the discussion about who the Warriors’ best player is go away—especially with outside observers so keen to take weird shots at Durant at odd times. I’ve always thought that the idea that KD doesn’t get enough love was a hollow hot take. But during Game 3, C.J. McCollum got spicy on Twitter about the kind of attention Durant draws by being a member of the Warriors.
These are facts. Warriors dnt cheer for KD the same way they cheer for the others lol. I’m just calling it like it is . Warriors a great team though . KD shouldn’t have gone there lol. When he play well he spose too, when he dnt play well it’s his fault and he bringing team down— CJ McCollum (@CJMcCollum) June 7, 2018
There are plenty of people who share McCollum’s opinion there, but the fact that a star player voiced it during the Finals with NBA Twitter in full force says quite a bit about how players perceive their interactions with fans and, beyond that, how credit is ladled out or withheld. The timing of saying Durant shouldn’t have signed with Golden State was even more striking when you consider that Durant is one more win away from having to consider whether he wants to re-sign with the Warriors. Durant is expected to opt out of his contract this offseason, and there’s already speculation about whether he should pack up his things and move to new digs. Before Game 3 on Wednesday morning, Sports Illustrated’s Andrew Sharp wondered that very thing out loud on ESPN, which sent the First Take talkers into a tizzy. One of the favorite fan-fiction scenarios has him decamping the Bay and landing in Los Angeles with the Lakers, possibly with LeBron. That would be a hell of a heel turn—teaming up with his current competition at the expense of his current friends.
Even if nothing so dramatic happens, there’s a big decision ahead of Durant, and there will be lots of speculation and questions about what he’ll do. If he decides to stay put, it obviously won’t be cheap for the Warriors. Of course, he’s worth every penny of a max contract and was even before he turned in a massive playoff performance in a critical moment that has Golden State primed to win a second straight title. All the numbers Durant has accumulated matter, and the accolades are starting to pile up. LeBron is the best player of his era, and maybe the best player ever, but on Wednesday night, on the King’s court, he was just like the rest of us—in awe of KD.
“You guys asked me this last year, ‘What was the difference between those Warriors and the year before?’” LeBron said. “‘Kevin Durant’ was my answer. He’s one of the best players I’ve ever played against—that this league has ever seen.”
At times, it felt like KD was maybe the only person who wasn’t wowed by his performance. It’s also possible he was just flat tired. That would be understandable given all the heavy lifting.
“I don’t want to downplay anything,” Durant said, “but I don’t really look at these as defining moments. I don’t want to act like this is the end of the road.”
No, but the end of the series will come soon enough. KD made sure of that.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Durant made a 3 at the buzzer on Kevin Love; it was on Larry Nance Jr.