After Kevin Durant’s masterpiece in Game 3, the only question left isn’t who will win the NBA Finals but, rather, who will be named its Most Valuable Player. At this point, it’s a far more interesting thing to ask.
Prior to Durant’s 43-point performance to lead the Golden State Warriors to a 3-0 series lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Stephen Curry made an NBA Finals record nine 3-pointers in Game 2. NBA Finals MVP was Curry’s honor to lose.
Buried by Durant’s explosion was the fact that Curry put up a dud — 11 points on 16 shots, 1-of-10 from 3-point range. His splasher-in-crime Klay Thompson, on the heels of a gritty Game 2 performance, wasn’t much better — making just four of his 11 shots for 10 points. When Durant was simply ordinary in the first two games of the series, Curry and Thompson delivered. When Curry and Thompson had off shooting nights in the series’ first game in Cleveland, Durant stepped up.
How much has Kevin Durant’s game actually changed since last season?
“That’s the challenge right there,” LeBron James said after the game. “That’s the challenge. You know, that’s why they’ve retooled this team, went out and got KD to where there’s really not much pressure on … I won’t say any of them to score, but if one of them has a bad game, they have three or four guys that can actually pick up the load.”
In a sense, that’s the point of a team. Not everyone — not everyone except LeBron, anyway — can have a good game every game. Durant scored a combined 52 points in the first two games, nearly 30 points fewer than what LeBron put up. Durant can have an average night and still leave with a win. LeBron can have an historic night, like he did in Game 1, and be undone by his teammates in four unfortunate seconds.
“I mean, it’s almost like playing the Patriots, you can’t have mistakes,” LeBron said. “They’re not going to beat themselves. You can’t have miscommunication, you can’t have flaws, you can’t have ‘my faults’ or ‘my bads’ or things like that, because they’re going to make you pay. The room for error, you just can’t have it.”
The Cavaliers have managed to keep two of the three games close — a moral victory if there ever was one. Most people didn’t think they had a chance in this series and you could make the argument that with a few more lucky bounces Cleveland has a 2-1 lead going into Friday night’s Game 4.
However, that’s the challenge in playing the Warriors. It takes near-perfection for 48 minutes to beat them. It takes only one or two players to step up and a second-half run for Golden State to win. As LeBron says, the margin for error is slim but, for the Warriors, it is vast.
It’s taken perfection from LeBron for the Cavaliers to even make it this far. His performances in seven-game series against the Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics, his game-winners to take down the Toronto Raptors. Peak LeBron was enough to make it through the East.
The Warriors have been far from perfect. Curry missed the entire first round and Durant and Thompson stepped up. In the Western Conference Finals, the Houston Rockets played closer to their respective ceiling than the Warriors did. If not for one tweaked hamstring, maybe the Rockets are in Cleveland. Again, that’s the difference. The Warriors can manage without a starter like Andre Iguodala. The Rockets — the only team to have given the Durant-era Warriors a fit — could not survive the loss of Chris Paul.
Golden State’s entire run up to now has been defined by the vast margin for error afforded to them. Cleveland’s meanwhile, has been exactly the opposite, defined by close calls and LeBron’s greatness.
In Game 2, it was Curry eviscerating the Cavaliers with a storm of 3-pointers. In Game 3, Durant’s precision was too much to overcome. Despite getting 20 points from Kevin Love and 15 out of the previously-entombed Rodney Hood, the non-LeBron Cavaliers only out-scored the non-Durant Warriors by two points. A good night from Cleveland’s supporting cast isn’t even as good as a below-average night from Golden State’s.
“Well, this is the beauty of this team and the luxury that we have of having multiple big-time scorers,” said Steve Kerr. “Yeah, it’s pretty nice, a pretty nice luxury as a coach, that’s for sure.”
Kerr was talking about Durant, whose dagger 3-pointer with 46 seconds left in Game 3 will be the signature moment of his NBA Finals, but he could have been talking about Curry after Game 2 just as well. Who knows who he’ll be talking about after Game 4.
Maybe, on Friday, it will be both. If that’s the case, the Cavaliers won’t have a chance. The margin between Golden State’s best and that of Cleveland’s is as wide as it has ever been. We’ve likely seen Cleveland’s. We haven’t gotten close to peeking Golden State’s.
Because his sustained perfection is so necessary, LeBron is unquestionably the best and most valuable player in the finals, but he won’t win finals MVP. That will go to a player on the champion team and it’s a matter of when, not if, Golden State will finish this series. The Warriors aren’t going to beat themselves, but the competition amongst each other will settle the only remaining unanswered question this season.