Everyone seems to be writing the Warriors off, but never underestimate Stephen Curry.
When the moment to win the Finals came, Kevin Durant’s face was blank and his eyes were cold.
He grabbed the rebound off Kyle Korver’s miss and loped up the court with strides both casual and menacing. He caught the world’s best player on his heels and did not hesitate.
He rose up, in that pristine, improbably vertical motion, a toothpick from basketball heaven, and drained the shot – and Cleveland’s hopes with it.
Cleveland were immaculate in Game 4 and brave in Game 5, but the series ended in Game 3. Coming back from 3-1 was magnificent, but 3-0 would be impossible.
For moments, though, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving made you believe. There is no shot that Irving cannot hit, and no play that James cannot make. When James cut the lead to three at the start of the fourth quarter of Game 5, you started to wonder.
But there was Durant, again. After James scored to make it 98-95, Durant immediately hit a fearless jumper over his only rival to extend the lead back to five. On the next possession, he whipped a James-like pass cross-court for an Andre Iguodala three, and then he hit an off-balance, falling-away three at the top of the key. The lead was out to eight, and Cleveland never truly threatened again.
It was Durant’s night and Durant’s series. James is the best player in the world, but for five games Durant was his equal. Five years ago, in another five-game series, he was not. But he has grown, and the context of Golden State – surely basketball history’s most magnificent context – has taken his game to the next level, and his status into the pantheon.
He’s taken the Warriors with him too. In 2015 and 2016, as brilliant as they were, the Warriors had a certain fragility. They would occasionally implode and forget how to play basketball, crushed by a torrent of turnovers and indecision. It was only ever brief, and they would eventually figure out the likes of Memphis and Matthew Dellavedova, but it was this mortality that made them so fascinating.
That mortality is dead. When the Warriors were embodied by Stephen Curry, they occasionally wore the worst traits of their superstar. Curry, a wizard and a phenomenon, can look careless at times, when brave becomes brazen. For stretches, he looks vulnerable.
Kevin Durant does not. He is unstoppable, without cessation. He has turned a team that had history’s greatest regular-season into a team that might be history’s greatest.
When the Warriors’ beautiful game became stilted, they turned to Durant. Time and time again he bailed them out, and re-ignited them. Moments of ‘individual’ to keep ‘team’ on track. That concept was the driving force behind luring Durant, an idea that made sense, and a reality that made teams weep.
The Cavaliers, ultimately, couldn’t keep up. They played at the Warriors’ pace, which they had to. The masses cried out for Cleveland to slow the tempo, play bigger and ugly the game up. But they didn’t have the soldiers for that style of game. They have a roster with one rim protector and two competent big men.
They needed James and Irving to be incandescent, and they were. The best player on Earth played at his peak, and the best pure scorer on Earth scored at his purest. And they won one game out of five. The Cavs never had a realistic avenue to victory.
The Warriors come in tsunamis instead of waves, in avalanches that feel more like alien invasions. Their runs at home, in the second halves of Games 1 and 2, and the second quarter of Game 5, were paralysing and cruel. All you can do as a viewer is sit back and say ‘so this is basketball’, and Cleveland had the best seat in the house.
Even before Durant, the Warriors had those runs. Perhaps the enduring image of the Warriors, even more than the Curry step-backs or the Klay Thompson heat-checks, is of Draymond Green at centre, fighting for a gang rebound, tipping it to Curry, who speeds up court, the world his stage, shooters spreading to the corners, defenders petrified and wanting to just die already, anything possible, and only one thing possible.
That frame was already basketball perfection, and Durant has made it even more perfect.