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OAKLAND, Calif. — When the Golden State Warriors came to contractual terms with Kevin Durant some 330 days ago, it was with one clear purpose in mind: to unleash him against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2017 NBA Finals.
It didn’t require an advanced degree or complicated analytics to see why, and it’s even more clear following Thursday night’s 113-91 Game 1 slaughter.
The Warriors’ high-octane offense, which powered the club to an all-time record 73 wins, became stagnant and predictable in the waning moments of Game 7 last Father’s Day. But with Durant aboard, Golden State would be able to spread the floor to its theoretical limits, get clearer looks for not only himself but also the team’s other stars, and have him pound inside for easier baskets in crunch time rather than rely on the high-variance threes that eluded the Warriors at the most inopportune time.
Durant accepted that challenge last July 4, even though he didn’t have a long, sustained history of playoff success. He knew that a crushing barrage of criticism was ready to unfurl in his direction regardless of how well the Warriors played.
And he knew that literally anything less than a championship this year would be deemed an unqualified, colossal failure.
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Before Thursday’s contest, the Warriors had cruised to a perfect 12-0 start in these playoffs. But detractors were quick to point out that they hadn’t played any staunch competition, thanks to a rash of injuries to opposing players. The prevailing wisdom heading into Game 1 at Oracle Arena was that Golden State would finally be tested.
Durant made sure the game was hardly close when it mattered.
With a scintillating 38 points on 26 shots, eight boards, eight assists and no turnovers, Durant hushed his critics (for now) and showed that the Warriors are not lacking for any motivation.
“This is what every player wants to be, is the highest level of basketball,” Durant said. “That’s what you dream about as a kid—to play at the highest level. I wouldn’t have done my teammates any good if I wasn’t just enjoying the moment, no matter what. So I just tried to stay locked in on that, [but] at the same time have some fun.”
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From the outset, Durant gave glimpses of how fun this endeavor would be, showing the frenzied home crowd—still likely experiencing residual trauma from the last Finals game played at Oracle—that he wasn’t going to be contained by the Cavs defense with any ease, and that any critique of his decision to join the Dubs was officially, if not always, moot.
With six dunks in a first half that saw Golden State enter the intermission with a 60-52 lead, Durant took advantage of defensive miscues time and again. The most memorable came with 4:20 left in the first quarter when Durant received a cross-court inbounds pass from the sideline that skipped past LeBron James to Durant, who pump-faked a three.
As James slid by, Durant thundered to the basket for a dunk that wasn’t even close to his easiest of the night.
“We want our guys to push on every possession, make or miss,” said acting Warriors head coach Mike Brown. “We feel like our guys are well-rested, and we feel like we should be able to attack on every single play.”
With 23 points and six assists in the first half alone, Durant kept Golden State comfortably ahead for long enough to see the inevitable third-quarter flurry that has become a hallmark of this team’s success. With the Warriors’ 33-20 outburst pushing the lead to 21, the fourth quarter was largely academic.
“If I see a lane, just try to attack,” Durant said. “My teammates always want me to attack and try to open it up for everybody else and try to score as well.”
Durant did it all in Game 1—especially considering the minutes he put in guarding James, who finished with 28 points and 15 boards but eight turnovers—and yet none of his efforts were truly surprising.
From the moment he signed, Durant was expected to raise the Warriors up another notch in the NBA pantheon—if one even existed after a 73-win regular season—or the year would be considered a failure. That excellence was on display against Cleveland on Thursday.
And this win can only help his confidence as the series undoubtedly gets more competitive from here. The Warriors likely won’t be held to just four turnovers again. Or take 20 more shots than the Cavs in any given game. Or even hold Cleveland to just 11 three-pointers when they came in averaging nearly 15 through 13 playoff games.
On the other hand, the Warriors left a smorgasbord of points out on the floor and are convinced they can play even better.
“But in the Finals,” as Durant gamely said, “you get the W. We’ll take it.”
And with three more games like this, the promise of Kevin Durant’s arrival in Oakland will be fulfilled.
Erik Malinowski covers the Warriors for B/R. His book, Betaball: How Silicon Valley and Science Built One of the Greatest Basketball Teams in History, will be published in October. Follow him on Twitter: @erikmal.