Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry have been an unsolvable equation in the NBA Finals.
While the Cleveland Cavaliers feature the best player in the world in LeBron James, Golden State boast something that has so far proven to be even better – the league’s best duo.
Durant and Curry have seemingly taken turns burning Cleveland through the first two games of the series at Oracle Arena, with their 65 combined points paving the way for another lopsided win in Game 2’s 132-113 trashing on Sunday night.
“It seemed like it’s personal for both of them,” Draymond Green said. “And you are talking two of the greatest players that we got in this world locked in the way they are, that’s why we’re up 2-0.”
When Durant chose to sign with the Warriors last summer, the feeling was that from the All-Star trio of Curry, Green and Klay Thompson, the two-time reigning MVP may be the one sacrificing the most going forward – both in terms of on-court production and as the face of the franchise.
It hasn’t always been perfectly equal footing between Curry and Durant this season, but the Finals have shown that their natural
unselfishness as players, coupled with Golden State’s culture, can overcome a draconian necessity to have star team-mates placed in a pecking order.
Arguably two of the top five players in the NBA, Durant and Curry haven’t just coexisted, but thrived in the Finals with each flexing their full range of talents. Both have unsurprisingly scored efficiently from inside and outside the arc, while Durant has exhibited his much-improved defence and Curry has flashed his handles and passing.
They’ve both had their fair share of signature moments, with Durant blocking a shot before going coast-to-coast for a highlight finish and Curry knocking down his range-less 3-pointers. When the two have shared the court, the Warriors are averaging 124.7 points per 100 possessions and outscoring opponents by 24.3 points per 48 minutes in the playoffs.
“They’re two of our leaders we follow,” Green said. “With them playing like that, it’s ‘everybody has to be locked in,’ when you got two guys locked in like that.
“So they continue to do that, which I have no doubt in my mind they will, we’ll continue to follow their lead.”
Everything is going right for Golden State, but by the numbers, they’re in nearly the exact same position as they were in last year before they blew a 3-1 lead.
The 2016 Warriors had outscored Cleveland by 48 points and led for 80 minutes through the first two games, while this year those figures are plus-41 and 86, respectively.
“None of that matters unless we can finish the job with this series,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “We know, trust me, we know. It was 2-0 last year and we lost.”
That team didn’t have Durant though and they also didn’t have an in-form Curry.
It’s impossible to count out James, but Golden State seem to have found the solution.
To beat or even compete with the Golden State Warriors, much has to change for the Cleveland Cavaliers from their opening performance, and the play of their frontcourt is near the top of the list.
After terrorising opponents in the first three rounds of the playoffs, Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love were either non-existent or ineffective in the 113-91 Game 1 loss to the Warriors to begin the NBA Finals.
Thompson’s stat line backed up how little he seemed to be involved in the action, with the big man recording no points on 0-of-3 shooting, while grabbing just four rebounds overall, including a sole board on the defensive end.
As the Cavaliers’ ‘Energizer Bunny’, Thompson is relied upon to consistently bring effort defensively and on the glass, and his hustle plays were a major reason for Cleveland storming back from a 3-1 deficit in the Finals last year.
Despite Thompson’s disappearance in the opener, the Cavaliers still managed to grab 15 offensive rebounds, but his lack of rim protection and aggressiveness meant he brought little to the table.
Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue highlighted Golden State’s approach to limiting Thompson, saying: “He’s one of the best offensive rebounders in the league, so they’re doing a good job of making sure they get two guys on him, two guys hitting his body to keep him off the glass.
“When you play good defence and Tristan is getting offensive rebounds, that demoralises your defence… We got to continue to keep playing. It was one game. And he’ll get more the next game.”
Love, meanwhile, managed solid production in the loss, but his fit against the Warriors is in many ways more concerning than Thompson’s.
The power forward shot well from deep, connecting on 3-of-6 triples, and gobbled up 21 rebounds, yet his 15 points paled in comparison to how exposed he was on the other end of the floor.
Golden State weren’t shy about attacking the power forward in mismatches whenever Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant found themselves covered by Love.
He also struggled to capitalise against mismatches in his favour on offence, with Klay Thompson shutting down his post-ups and the Warriors’ defence regularly pushing him out past the 3-point line, relegating him to a spot-up shooter.
Both Love and Thompson looked a step too slow and how they rebound in Game 2 tonight could be telling.
“The onus is definitely on us,” Love said. “That’s a mindset. Like I mentioned, we need to understand when to take fouls, when to be super-assertive, super-aggressive on the defensive end and in the open court, know how we’re going to fan out to different defenders, not open up the lane for certain guys, and just make second and third efforts to get the 50-50 balls.”
LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the rest of the NBA world quickly learned how much of a difference Kevin Durant makes in this rivalry.
After a season’s worth of speculation as to how much the addition of Durant would tilt the balance of power in the Golden State’s favour, the Cavaliers’ worst fears and the Warriors’ wildest dreams were
realised within the first 48 minutes of the NBA Finals.
Durant did more than just provide a boost – he was the best player on the floor in the Warriors’ 113-91 Game 1 victory, outplaying LeBron James on both ends as a fully weaponised Golden State squad continued their domination at Oracle Arena on Thursday.
James, who was at the centre of the previous two Finals between the teams that resulted in 13 games played out of a possible 14, was succinct when asked what stood out in the trilogy’s third opener.
“KD,” replied James.
Durant shined on paper – a game-high 38 points on 14-of-26 shooting, including 3-of-6 from long range, to go with eight rebounds, eight assists and zero turnovers.
But he was somehow even better than the stats suggest. He found an ideal balance between playing unselfishly within the flow of the offence and looking for his shot, while making simple passes to open teammates and aggressively attacking in the open court.
Durant’s defence was just as impressive, with his length and athleticism bothering James in one-on-one settings and other Cavaliers players when they attacked the rim.
Of course, as deadly as Durant is in a vacuum, his other-worldly talent has been streamlined by the players around him, such as Stephen Curry, whose gravitational pull draws defenders out of his path, and Draymond Green, who can trigger fast breaks instantaneously.
“I’m only as good as my teammates,” Durant said. “Steph and Klay [Thompson] and Draymond and Zaza [Pachulia] and the rest of the guys, we just complement each other, try to complement each other and try to make the game easier for each other. And I only can get in transition because we got stops and rebounding.”
Solving the Durant issue may be at the top of the list for Cleveland going forward, but it’s one of many for the defending champions as they face a seemingly impossible task. “They’re the best I ever seen,” Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said.
“I mean, no other team has done this, right? So 13-0, and they constantly break records every year, last year being 73-9, this year starting the playoffs 13-0. So, they’re playing good basketball. But we can play better.”
FIVE THINGS WE LEARNED FROM GAME 1
Cavaliers tried to match the pace
Cleveland is in somewhat of a pickle when it comes to deciding how fast to play in this series. Their attack is at its best when running the ball down their opponents’ throats, but the same is true for Golden State. But it’s more likely the Cavaliers can be competitive by grinding out games instead of turning them into shootouts, as evidenced by the 0.89 points they held the Warriors to in the half-court in Game 1. Cleveland may be better off slowing it down.
Cavaliers have no room for error
It’s hard enough to beat these Warriors as it is, but if you don’t take care of business with the things you can control, you have no chance. Cleveland learned that the hard way in the opener, in which they turned the ball over 20 times, compared to Golden State’s four, leading to a 21-6 deficit in points off turnovers. In many ways, the Cavaliers’ best defence in this series will be a sound, secure offence if they hope to limit the Warriors’ transition looks. Any second chance points allowed also spells death.
Warriors managed in pick-and-roll D
One of the most obvious areas where the Cavaliers can take advantage is when LeBron James receives an on-ball screen to get Stephen Curry in a switch, which worked time and time against last year. In Game 1, however, Golden State were able to hold their own on that play by doing their best to go under the pick and then shifting their backline to help on LeBron’s straight-line drives. That strategy was a big factor in James turning the ball over eight times and having fewer pathways to the rim.
Thompson’s defence still strong
It’s unrealistic to expect the Warriors to make every shot, but it was an anomaly that Klay Thompson made just 3-of-16 from the field. And yet, it didn’t matter because the shooting guard more than made up for it on the defensive end, where he continues to be perpetually underrated. When Thompson was the primary defender, Cavaliers players shot just 1-of-12, with 11 of those coming from LeBron James, Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love. His size was particularly bothersome for Irving and Love.
Curry looks like a magician again
A lot has been made of Stephen Curry looking fully healthy this time around, as opposed to last year’s Finals when he appeared just… off. Whatever the case may be, he’s making defenders look foolish again, while not hesitating or seeming unsure of himself when drawing a mismatch. Tristian Thompson and Kevin Love both had moments of brilliance defending Curry last year, but that seems like a thing of the past now, with the two-time MVP back to his best.