They’d go out of their way to make him feel comfortable in his new surroundings, often at their own expense on the offensive end. He’d go out of his way not to step on toes, as the new guy trying to blend into what was already a historically great team. It was rather sweet — an example of Golden State’s camaraderie that was so celebrated at the beginning of this dynastic run.
And then sometime after the Warriors lost on Christmas Day to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016, everybody stopped being polite and started getting real: Kevin Durant is the best pure scorer on the planet, and the sooner everybody started embracing that, the better it would be for all of them.
That much is still true. And it’s what Durant reminded the world of Thursday night at Staples Center in Golden State’s 132-105 drubbing of the LA Clippers in Game 3 of their first-round Western Conference playoff series, giving the Warriors a 2-1 series lead.
After shooting only eight times in Golden State’s Game 2 meltdown, Durant came out aggressively from the opening tip and finished with a game-high 38 points on 14-of-23 shooting. Durant didn’t even need to take the court in the fourth quarter.
Durant hit all of his first five shots, scored or assisted on 51 percent of Golden State’s 73 points in the first half, and put to rest any notion that pesky Clippers defender Patrick Beverley had gotten into his head by making 3 of 4 shots when defended by Beverley. According to Second Spectrum tracking, Durant has 9-of-13 shooting (69 percent) when defended by Beverley in this series.
“I don’t really talk about other players during the series,” Warriors power forward Draymond Green told ESPN, when asked about Beverley. “But I like Kevin in that matchup, regardless of what [Beverley] does. I like Kevin in any matchup, with whoever. Anytime. Period.
“No one’s defense matters, by the way. I’ve been on the other side of that [defensive matchup with Durant], and mine didn’t either. I like that matchup with anybody.”
Green was referencing the years he spent defending Durant when Durant was a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder. And so much has happened since then.
Durant has won two NBA Finals MVP awards because he had dominant games like he had Thursday when the Warriors needed him most.
Whenever LeBron James or the Cavs seemed as if they might have a way to solve the Warriors, Durant was their trump card.
And when he summons performances the way he did Thursday night, or in Game 3 of the 2017 Finals or Game 3 of the 2018 Finals, it makes you shake your head and wonder how anyone ever stops him.
It’s also why he gets questioned so harshly after passive performances, such as the one he had in Game 2. Stephen Curry‘s foul trouble had just as much to do with why the Warriors squandered their 31-point lead. Same goes for Klay Thompson‘s quiet night, or the team’s lack of focus defensively during the Clippers’ comeback.
But the lion’s share of criticism after Game 2 rested on Durant’s shoulders, to which he said simply: “I’m Kevin Durant. You know who I am. Y’all know who I am.”
And he then proceeded to remind everyone of what that means: As the best scorer in the world, Durant can pretty much take over any game, against any defender, whenever he’s locked in and his teammates and coaches run plays that free him up to do that.
“Mostly it’s just trying to get him in the right positions,” Curry said. “We all know what spots to be in on the floor, where to space, things like that. It allows him to be more aggressive.”
Yes, Durant was passive in Game 2. But he does that sometimes, getting lost in the Warriors’ offensive flow. It had actually been happening a lot lately, as Durant took 10 or fewer shots in six of his past 12 games. He was focused on playmaking, on the way the team was playing, not on getting his. And as he said the other day, the Warriors were playing great, so why change just because Beverley was trying to troll him?
In simpler times, without the threat of his impending free agency hanging over them, Thursday’s performance would be seen as the Warriors and Durant coming together as they gear up for another championship run — the latest example of that Warriors camaraderie.
But as the context has changed, so has the interpretation.
Durant is so good that it is nearly impossible to compartmentalize his future from his present. And for that matter, Golden State’s future, with or without him, from the Warriors’ present as they try to win a fourth title in five years.
That is the Warriors’ challenge this season, though: to find some Zen in the midst of the maelstrom that awaits them this summer. Maybe it’s enough just to stay in the moment and appreciate Durant’s brilliance on nights like this.
As Warriors coach Steve Kerr said before the game, “I grew up right here in Los Angeles, and when I was 10 years old, I watched UCLA beat Kentucky for the national championship. It was their 10th national title in 12 years, and at 10 years old and as a UCLA fan, I thought that’s going to happen forever, that’s going to go on forever. [John] Wooden retired after the game, and they’ve won one national title since.
“But I think the reason people are so attracted to sports is that none of us know what’s going to happen. You do your best to build a good team and a solid team, and you hope to get some luck along the way. And I think we’ve done that and we’ve experienced the luck, and the bad luck, and it’s all part of it. You don’t worry about expectations; you just go out there and play and do your best and see if you can sustain it for a long time. But everything comes to an end, and we’re just trying to keep this going as long as we can.”