CLEVELAND — Two Cleveland Cavaliers fans stood courtside before Game 3 of the NBA Finals and marveled at the player who’d been the star of the series so far, even if he wore a Golden State Warriors uniform.
One turned to the other and asked, “Did you know Durant was this good?”
They could be forgiven if they were unaware. The local fans have never seen Kevin Durant win a game in Cleveland when LeBron James was on the Cavaliers. The last time Durant was in town, on Christmas Day, he missed seven of nine shots in the fourth quarter, then couldn’t get a shot off on the Warriors’ last possession.
If the Warriors were going to win Game 3, if they were going to keep their perfect postseason alive and close in on the first 16-0 playoff run in NBA history, they’d need Durant to take another step and win a road game in the NBA Finals.
Durant was determined to change the narrative. He hit a baseline jumper, then he made a deep 3-pointer, personally erasing a four-point Cavaliers lead late in the game en route to a 118-113 win for Golden State and a 3-0 NBA Finals lead.
“He took over,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “You can tell he knows this is his moment. He’s been an amazing player in this league for a long time. He senses this is his time, his moment, his team.”
After Kyrie Irving missed a step-back 3-pointer, the Warriors looked uncertain in the front court, not knowing whether to take a timeout or work down the cock. Durant knew exactly what to do. He clapped for the ball near mid-court, and his teammates obliged by passing to him. Durant drew the foul and made both free throws, putting the Warriors up 116-113 with 12.9 seconds remaining.
Durant was good, scoring 14 of his 31 points in the fourth quarter, overcoming James (39 points) and Irving (38 points).
When it was over, after Stephen Curry knocked down two free throws to seal the victory and then the final buzzer sounded, Durant doubled over and Curry ran over to him as if to bestow player of the game honors. Durant was grabbing in the moment, getting to the cusp of his first championship. Durant also had eight rebounds and four assists. It wasn’t his best game of the series, but it was his biggest moment.
One of the biggest differences in this year’s Warriors had been their ability to adapt when they took to the road for the third game of series. They had dropped five of six Game 3s over the previous two postseasons. They turned that around with an explosive third quarter to capture Game 3 in Portland during the first round, the first game with Mike Brown taking over the coaching duties from Steve Kerr, then carried that with them to Utah and San Antonio the next rounds.
The Warriors were well aware of their Game 3 struggles in Quicken Loans Arena. The Warriors trailed, 33-16, after one quarter in Game 3 last year. They only scored 20 points in the first quarter of Game 3 in 2015 — 36 points in 24 minutes’ worth of first quarters over two years. By comparison, they dropped 40 in the opening quarter of Game 2 in this series.
Wednesday night, Klay Thompson (30 points) scored 16 points on his own in the first quarter. It wasn’t a solo effort, however. This was Warriors basketball, with 13 assists on their 14 field goals. The only thing missing was Curry, scoreless on 0-for-2 shooting through the first 10 minutes. He rectified that with two 3-pointers in a span of 26 seconds and the Warriors emerged with a 39-32 advantage at the end of the quarter. That gave them a staggering 114 points scored in 36 minutes of first-quarter play this series. It also cleared the 35-point benchmark for the first quarter; the Warriors were 23-0 when scoring at least 35 points in the first quarter this season.
They then reverted to shades of last season in the second quarter, both in shooting and behavior. They were nine for 21 from the field and Draymond Green, whose avoidance of technical and flagrant fouls in these playoffs had turned into a mini-storyline, picked up a technical complaining about his third personal foul of the game.
But the Warriors picked up a couple more Curry 3-pointers to bring them to an NBA Finals-record 12 3s in the first half. And they were sitting on 67 points at the half — just as they were in Game 2 at home.
Next up: Game 4 on Friday night.