CLEVELAND — When Kevin Durant chose to join the Golden State Warriors last summer as a free agent, he cited plenty of reasons. But there was one, above all, that led to Durant leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder to join the team that had ended his season: They provided him with the best chance to win a championship.
In Game 3 of the NBA Finals, with the potential for history hanging in the balance, Durant stepped forward to leave Golden State on the verge of its second title in three years, scoring seven of his 31 points during an 11-0 run over the final 3:09 to lift the Warriors to a 118-113 win and a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
The key shot in the run was a three-pointer with 45 seconds remaining that put the Warriors up 114-113.
“I been working on that shot my whole life,” said Durant, who had eight rebounds and four assists. “For that one to go in, that was liberating right there.”
Now the Warriors, who haven’t lost since April 10, will have a chance to do something no team has ever done: go 16-0 en route to winning a championship.
And they will have the chance to do so because of Durant, the man who has turned an already great team into arguably the greatest in NBA history — one that feels like the living embodiment of a video game cheat code.
That certainly was the case in the final minutes Wednesday. After the Cavaliers, who were led by brilliant performances from LeBron James (39 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists) and Kyrie Irving (38 points), had led for the final few minutes of the third and all of the fourth, it was Durant who led the Warriors back in the final moments.
It didn’t look like Golden State would have its shot at history after a potential game-tying three-pointer by Klay Thompson, who finished with 30 points, was followed by James driving into the lane and kicking out to J.R. Smith for a three-pointer that made it 113-107 Cavaliers with 3:09 to play.
But then Durant took over. After Stephen Curry, who had 26 points and 13 rebounds, hit a jumper to make it 113-109, Durant drove into the lane and made a short jumper to make it 113-111 with 1:13 remaining. And after Kyle Korver — one of the NBA’s best three-point shooters — missed an open corner three-pointer with 52 seconds remaining, Durant caught the ball near the top of the key and buried a triple to make it 114-113 with 45 seconds remaining.
The Cavaliers then had a pair of chances to tie or take the lead on the next two possessions. But Irving missed a three-pointer, and after Curry hit a pair of free throws — after Cleveland inexplicably wasted 13 seconds before fouling — Andre Iguodala stripped James on an attempted three-pointer and then forced James to step out of bounds and turn the ball over, ending Cleveland’s hopes — and all but certainly ensuring the Warriors will be crowned world champions in the coming days.
“We were up eight in the first quarter,” Durant said. “We just wanted to stay around. We just settled down and got stops in the end.”
If there was any doubt about how this game would be played, that was answered by the way both teams started the game. As anyone would expect with their season on the line, the Cavaliers started the game absolutely flying around the court. But while Cleveland came out making everything — hitting 11 of its 20 shots in the first quarter and getting to the line seven times — so, too, did Golden State.
That was especially true for Thompson, whose struggles throughout these playoffs — at least up until Game 2 of these Finals — were quickly forgotten. Thompson followed up his 22-point performance in Game 2 with 16 points in the first quarter of Game 3, going 5 for 7 from the field and 4 for 5 from three-point range as the Warriors set a new NBA Finals record by burying nine three-pointers in the first quarter alone.
That allowed Golden State to wind up leading 39-32 after one, finishing the quarter with a 10-0 run with James on the bench for the final 109 seconds of the half. That wound up being the only time he sat in the entire first half, as he checked back in to start the second and promptly began dragging Cleveland back into the game.
There was always little doubt the Cavaliers were going to give it everything they had in Game 3. After losing the first two games in Oakland, Cleveland knew that its only chance of making this a competitive series would be to win Game 3 on their home court. And, from the opening tip, James appeared hellbent on making sure that would happen. He had 15 points on 7-for-8 shooting in the first quarter and finished the first half with 27 points on 11-for-14 shooting, hitting three times from behind the three-point line to go along with four rebounds and three assists.
But unlike the prior two games, he got some significant contributions from others — specifically Irving. After struggling, at least by his standards, in both games in Oakland, Irving was back to his explosive self in this one. And after James kept Cleveland in the game with his massive first half, Irving allowed the Cavaliers to take control of it in the third with a massive third quarter.
Irving scored 16 points in the third alone, going 7 for 10 from the floor on an assortment of his usual crafty drives into the lane that resulted in one contested layup after another. After Cleveland went on a 10-0 run early in the third to take their first lead since the game’s opening minutes, Irving hit James for a dunk and then made a pair of baskets to extend Cleveland’s lead to 94-87 late in the third — its largest of the game.
It looked like it might be enough to ensure a Cleveland victory, and to give the Cavaliers new life in this series. But Durant had other ideas. And now, he’s moved within one win of doing the thing he came to Golden State to do: win a championship.