Kevin Durant delivered two daggers in Game 3 of the NBA Finals, both piercing the Cleveland Cavaliers’ hearts – his deep 3-pointer in the final minute to seal a win and his performance as a whole to effectively end the series.
This was the type of game the Cavaliers needed to get back on track at home. Their role players stepped up, they killed the Warriors on the glass, Klay Thompson was a non-factor and, perhaps most importantly, Stephen Curry had one of the worst shooting nights of his career.
And yet none of it mattered in the end because Durant’s transcendent performance washed over everything like a tidal wave engulfing everything in its path.
As the best player on the floor in Game 3, Durant scored a career playoff-high 43 points on 15-of-23 shooting, while adding 13 rebounds and seven assists to take complete control of the Finals.
His unstoppable nature was on full display throughout as he rose over defenders from beyond the arc and in the mid-range to score effortless bucket after effortless bucket.
All of that culminated in Durant’s 3-pointer with 49.8 seconds left to give the Warriors a six-point lead.
It was nearly the same shot – from almost the same spot on the floor – that Durant hit in Game 3 of last year’s Finals, which also helped give Golden State a 3-0 lead.
Kevin Durant— Rob Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) June 7, 2018
2017 Game 3
2018 Game 3 pic.twitter.com/HdR3nxI3jX
This one, however, was even deeper and came from 33 feet out, making it one of four triples Durant hit in the game that were from 30-plus feet. He had previously made only one shot from that distance in any single game, regular season or playoffs, in his career.
The Cavaliers simply had no answer for Durant. LeBron James defended him for stretches and took on the responsibility at the end of the game, but the Warriors threw off the match-up by setting a screen and forcing a switch. Thanks to his combination of length and shooting, Durant is ungradable as it is, but when he’s firing on all cylinders like he was in Game 3, no defence can slow him down in a one-on-one setting.
Durant has been the Warriors’ fail-safe since he joined in the summer of 2016 and while a high volume of shots by him doesn’t usually translate to the offence playing their preferred brand, he significantly raises their floor as a security blanket on nights when Curry and Thompson are misfiring.
Game 3 was one of those nights and in the pre-Durant days, it would have almost certainly been a loss against a LeBron-led team. But against this version of Golden State, you need all three of their offensive stars to have an off game to ensure victory. They can each cover for one another – something James doesn’t have the luxury of anymore with Kyrie Irving on longer around.
James could have used one of those sidekick-becomes-the-hero performances Irving used to provide so often in Game 3. Even though he had a triple-double with 33 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds, it wasn’t a great game by James’ standards.
He appeared dead set on getting his teammates involved from the jump as he turned the corner on drives with the intent of finding open shooters. The strategy worked initially as Cleveland’s role players found a bit of rhythm, but by the end when shots weren’t falling, James hadn’t established enough of a scoring rhythm himself and couldn’t get a bucket at will like he could in the series opener. He also settled for 3-pointers far too often on a night his jumper wasn’t falling, going 1-of-6 from beyond the arc.
For the Cavaliers to have any chance of beating the Warriors, James has to bring his A-game every night. The key difference between the teams is that Golden State can get away with only one of Durant, Curry or Thompson bringing theirs.
It’s a trap
Speaking of Curry, it would be easy to say from looking at his stat line – 11 points on 3-of-16 shooting and 1-of-10 from deep – that Cleveland figured out how to shut him down by employing an aggressive trapping scheme.
The reality, however, is that the Cavaliers’ use of the trap benefitted them only in one way and that was getting the ball out of Curry’s hands more. His rough shooting night was more a result of him missing shots he normally drains and at times pressing the issue whenever he encountered single coverage.
The trade-off for that was countless easy dunks and layups for the Warriors in 4-on-3 situations. With Durant or Thompson spotting up near the corners and Curry handling the ball, that allowed one of Golden State’s non-shooters to set a screen and the other to be Curry’s outlet at the top of the key – usually Draymond Green – after getting trapped. The result was Green getting a pass in open space and playing 2-on-1 with his defender, who was stuck in the middle between him and the screen-setting roll man. With the Cavaliers hugging up on Durant and Thompson, there were no help defenders to deter easy dives to the rim.
The screens set were more touch-and-go leading to slips, which got the Warriors attacking downhill quicker and left the two Cleveland defenders trapping on Curry with an impossible foot race to win to get back in the play.
There are no right answers for the Cavaliers on how to defend the Warriors. Either they trap and get sliced up like they did in Game 3, or switch everything and leave someone like Kevin Love on an island with Curry.
Cleveland don’t have the versatile and switchable personnel Houston do, so they can’t come close to fielding the ideal defence required to consistently bother Golden State.
Sometimes, the other team is just that much better and there’s nothing you can do.
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