OAKLAND – Kevin Durant had the misfortune of coming along during LeBron James’s peak, which means being measured against an unbearable standard, like a tall tree in a redwood forest. Divergent body types and skill-sets have prevented direct comparisons between Durant and James, but for any great player, Durant included and maybe especially, James has set the bar for achievement.
Thursday night, Durant appeared in his first NBA Finals in five years and James returned for the seventh consecutive June. Durant had spent the last nine days deep in study, searching for ways to slow down the best player on the planet, and maybe to prove he deserves consideration for the honorific. “He’s prepared,” as one person close to him said. So often in his career, Durant had been unable to surmount James. These NBA Finals may finally allow Durant to rise above James, even if he stands on the shoulders of the Golden State Warriors.
Durant prevailed in his head-to-head matchup against James, his 38 points, eight rebounds and eight assists — with no turnovers — leading the Warriors to a 113-91 trouncing at Oracle Arena. James scored 28 points, but only nine came in the second half, and he committed eight turnovers. Durant dominated, dunking six times in the first half and splashing a procession of three-pointers in the second. Asked what most stood out to him about the hard court Death Star he had just faced, James responded with a succinct answer: “K.D.”
Spurred to elaborate, James broached the unavoidable, obvious element hovering over the series. Durant chose last summer to join forces with a 73-win team, and it might make for an impossible task to make the series competitive, let alone win it, even for James.
“I mean, you take one of the best teams that we had ever assembled last year, that we saw in the regular season and in the postseason,” James said, “and then in the offseason you add a high-powered offensive talent like that and a great basketball IQ like that. That’s what stands out.”
By jumping to the Warriors, Durant created an overwhelming title favorite. He also gave himself a chance to finally overcome James. Durant had made only one Finals, in 2012, which he lost in five games to James’s Miami Heat. Two years later he won the MVP but lost in the conference finals. Their teams had met 23 times before Thursday night, and James’s had won 18. Every time Durant approached the summit, James met him there and knocked him back down the mountain. It has always been James, ready to relegate him to second-best.
Durant can change that. He might not take James’s unofficial belt as the world’s best player, but he can beat him in this series. Durant has the better team, sure, and James is asked to do more for his team than Durant is for his, although it’s closer than most think, given the rim-protecting responsibility Durant assumes in several small lineups. But the geometry of the rosters have pitted him against James.
Durant would never claim the series is about him, which is what created such a strong mutual attraction between him and the Warriors. “I just tried to play as hard as I can and not make it about a matchup,” Durant said. “It’s about us. It’s about the Golden State Warriors versus the Cleveland Cavaliers.” But he is the most important player in the series, especially how the Warriors deployed him in Game 1. For the Cavaliers to compete, James must dominate. The Warriors placed Durant directly in his path, and in Game 1, he owned the matchup.
Durant knew immediately he would draw James as an assignment. The Warriors switch constantly on defense against screens, but the primary responsibility in slowing James would fall to Durant. “Being that he’s guarding LeBron, he’s taking that challenge on,” teammate Draymond Green said. “I expect nothing less out of him, being the competitor that he is.”
“He takes the challenge,” Livingston said. “He definitely takes the challenge. Top two players at their position, who wouldn’t? He embraces it. But at the same time, what’s important is, he doesn’t sacrifice or compromise the team doing it. He gets his in the flow of the game. That’s where he’s special.”
In the nine days the Warriors rested after the Western Conference finals, Durant devoured film and scouting notes on James, focusing mostly on defense. He developed a general strategy: He believed James would struggle to score over him, so he would stay in front of James, use his length and not foul.
Durant was whistled just once, when James darted past him off a screen and Durant grabbed his jersey intentionally to prevent a lay-up. Otherwise, the plan worked to perfection. The majority of James’s points came when other defenders guarded him, and Durant’s long arms even served to close off passing lanes, lessening the impact James could make with his typically sublime passing.
“He’s down for the challenge,” teammate David West said. “He’s been doing it all year for us. He’s so big. The key for him is just to be solid, which is what he was. He did a good job to make he kept his body on LeBron as often as possible.”
By the end, the Warriors had blown out the Cavaliers. James was already trying to divine ways to combat them in Game 2. Durant was draining a three and then making eyes at Rihanna, sitting in the front row. “I don’t even remember that,” Durant said. “Don’t fall into that trap,” Steph Curry said, seated next to him at a press conference.
In the victorious locker room, Durant sat in his corner stall, ice strapped over both knees. He chatted with General Manager Bob Myers and joked with teammates Ian Clark and JaVale McGee. Warriors legend Rick Barry strolled past and offered encouragement. “If I’m Cleveland,” Barry told Durant, “I’d be really worried!”
After his press conference, Durant walked down a corridor, back toward the locker room, his first night in the Finals in five years over. John Gray, a longtime friend he met in Oklahoma City, shook his hand and hugged him. “Yes, sir,” Gray told him. “Yes, sir.”
“He’s worked his whole life for this,” Gray said. “It’s in his heart.”
Durant still has three games to go before he can finally vanquish James. He has spent his career, even the best parts, as second best. The debate about the means he took to change that, to leap to one of the best of all time, will rage. But on Thursday night, it was clear. There was nobody better than Kevin Durant.
More from The NBA Finals