It’s hard to believe this now, but Danny Ainge was at one time one of the most hated general managers in the league when he traded away fan favourite Antoine Walker to the Dallas Mavericks.
Two weeks ago is a long time in the NBA. A fortnight ago, it was thought the Warriors would coast their way to another championship, having blown Houston away 119-106 on the Rockets’ home court.
Kevin Durant was the difference, scoring 37 points on 27 shots, and embarrassing the Rockets’ defence through an array of testing midrange jumpers.
Durant toyed with any and all defenders – often facing double teams. It was almost as if he could have found easier scoring avenues, except he was proving a point to showcase his talent.
At the time, the general consensus was that Durant was the second-best player on the planet, behind LeBron James.
It was performances like these ones from Durant that led to quotes like these from Warriors coach Steve Kerr: “He can get you a bucket as well as anybody on Earth.”
Fox Sports analyst Skip Bayless joined the festivities, claiming the mantle of the best player on the planet had been passed and that Durant was the “greatest midrange shooter” he had ever seen.
Just ten days later, after the Warriors’ Game 5 loss, Bayless said, “I evaluate greatness from night to night… I can no longer call Kevin Durant the best player on the planet.”
Bayless was right, in a way. Durant had not lived up to the high standards he had set for himself and was not playing like the second-best player on the planet.
Durant failed to reach the 40 per cent mark from the field through Games 4, 5 and 6. He was criticised for his inability to score down the stretch, even failing to register a single point in the fourth quarter of Houston’s shock Game 5 victory.
Yes, Durant redeemed himself to a degree in the Warriors’ series-clinching Game 7 victory, but his video-game-like 34-point performance went largely under the radar.
He was not the difference in this game like he was in Game 1.
Enter Steph Curry.
Steph stole the show in Game 7. His 27 points might not have looked as sensational as Durant’s 34 (although he did equal his own record for most three-pointers made, with seven, and was one rebound off a triple-double). However, when the Warriors looked done, and they needed someone (their best player… maybe?) to take over the game, it was Steph who rose to the challenge.
Curry – just as he did in the Games 3 and 6 victories – bewildered the Rockets with a barrage of threes. While Houston bricked all 14 of their three-point attempts in the third quarter, Curry made them from everywhere on the court. He scored 14 of Golden State’s 33 points in the term, building a foundation for Durant and the rest of the Warriors to jump on and eventually ride all the way to a fourth straight Western Conference title.
The Warriors wouldn’t have won the series without Curry’s 25 points per game on 47 per cent shooting. Nor would they have won the series without Durant’s 30.5 points per game on 46 per cent shooting (nor would they probably have won without Draymond Green’s defence, playmaking and rebounding or Klay Thompson’s shot making… but that’s not the point).
Curry’s series was not all cheers and joy either. Both Durant and Curry – the two centrepieces of the team, and the only untouchable assets at the organisation – had well-documented struggles.
Curry’s first two games were so underwhelming (two of 13 three-point attempts made) that he and Kerr had to insist he wasn’t injured.
So, as it stands, after two long weeks, Golden State are heading to the NBA Finals to face the Cleveland Cavaliers, and they definitely haven’t coasted. I’m also now unsure to who the second best player on the planet is.
During these two weeks, King James has further widened the gap between one and two with his historical play. However, the size of the gap between two and three (if there is any gap at all) is now unknown to me.
Usually, it would be disrespectful not to mention James Harden in the conversation – the likely MVP for the 2018 regular season – and if I only watched Harden’s 14-point first quarter of Game 7, I would probably be making the case for him. But Harden’s poor shot selection and inconsistency throughout the series led to him shooting 41.5 per cent from the field and 24.5 per cent from three-point range – both well below his regular season outputs.
That leaves Durant and Curry to battle it out for the number two spot – a peculiar situation that two teammates will be battling, and one I doubt will enter either of their minds at any point during the finals. They would probably be quick to shut down the idea of comparison, just as former Lakers great (and my favourite player of all time) Kobe Bean Bryant did on Monday, after LeBron advanced to his eighth straight NBA finals.
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) May 28, 2018
But it is only human nature that we judge, order and rank where players sit in comparison to others. One of my favourite all-time sports journalists, Bill Simmons, even constructed a pyramid of the 96 greatest players in the history of pro basketball. Let’s not forget the Michael Jordan-LeBron debate which has dominated sports talk ever since James entered the league. It’s just how we think as sports fans.
So in two weeks’ time, we will know one thing: who the 2018 NBA Champions are. We may or may not think we know who the second-best player in the league is. It may still be a massive grey area.
Durant could elevate himself back to his rightful spot, where he unanimously sat two long weeks ago. Or Curry could take back what was widely seen as his position when he won two straight MVPs – one of which was the first unanimous MVP ever awarded.
Like Skip Bayless, basketball fans will be constantly throughout the finals altering our player rankings as they “update their resumes” – in the words of Bayless himself. And if ever there is a time to alter your player rankings, it’s now – the biggest and brightest stage of the year.
Would it be too outlandish to suggest that either of the two could eclipse King James’ supremacy as the greatest player on the planet? Undoubtedly.
But again, two weeks is a long time in the NBA.