OAKLAND - We will never know what might have happened if Kevin Durant stayed put last summer.
Would the Golden State Warriors team that won 73 games without him last season come back better than ever, perhaps avenging their Finals loss to the rival Cleveland Cavaliers? Would the Oklahoma City Thunder have supplanted them as the Western Conference kings, a scenario that looked so possible when they took the Warriors to seven games in the conference finals a year ago?
When the Warriors won their second championship in three years on Monday night at Oracle Arena, downing the Cavs 129-120 in Game 5 and thus avoiding all the rising pressure that would have come with another loss, this NBA truth was cemented in a way that isn’t changing anytime soon: Golden State isn’t going away.
Durant won his first championship in as emphatic a fashion as anyone could have imagined, finishing with 39 points, seven rebounds and five assists while fighting LeBron James (41 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists) on the defensive end. Back-to-back MVP Steph Curry ended his Finals in fine form, too, bouncing back from a bad Game 4 to add 34 points, 10 assists and six rebounds.
The Cavs fought until the end. But the embarrassment of riches that came with Durant’s arrival was simply too much to bear.
“We were able to get them last year, and they went out and got one of the best players that this league has ever seen, so they did a good job of — a great job, their front office and their players, by doing that recruiting, the things that they did in the summertime, and obviously it paid dividends,” James said.
There had been plenty of memorable moments from Durant and James in these Finals, but nothing like the early fourth quarter stretch in which the Warriors star seized his chance to win his first title. James’ barreling drive and reverse layup past Durant had cut Golden State’s lead to three, but Durant didn’t wait long to answer.
He buried a one-legged stepback jumper over James, then used the fear factor he creates in opposing defenses to his advantage the next time down. With the Cavs all floating his way, Durant fired a crosscourt pass to Andre Iguodala for a three-pointer that pushed the lead to eight. Durant buried another three on the next possession, the Warriors whipping passes around the floor before it came his way for the shot that barely flew past Kevin Love's outstretched hand.
Not long after, when Curry returned after watching the 10-3 run from the bench, Durant kept delivering. He slipped behind the defense and took an Iguodala pass for a wide-open dunk that put the Warriors up 110-102. He rose up for the clean midrange look that made it 116-106, then darted down the lane past Kyle Korver for a lay-in that kept the Cavs at bay again.
Curry was helping along the way by being aggressive when the long-range looks just weren’t there. With 4:13 left, as the Cavs kept coming, Durant saw Curry sneaking into the paint and found him with a pass from near the halfcourt line that led to his layup and put the Warriors up 14.
For all the beautiful basketball that had been played between these two teams in the past two Finals, there was always an asterisk tacked on to the result.
In 2015, when the Warriors won in six games to end their franchise’s 40-year title drought, it was the absence of Love (shoulder injury) and the Game 1 knee injury to Kyrie Irving that left so many lamenting the timing of it all. In 2016, when the Cavs won it all for the first time in their franchise’s 52-year history while becoming the first team in league history to recover from a 3-1 Finals deficit, the Warriors were left pondering the what-if scenarios because of Curry’s ailing left knee, Draymond Green’s Game 5 suspension and Andrew Bogut’s injury that cost him the final two games.
"It's different just because of what happened last year to be honest," Curry said. "We went through, for lack of a better term, basketball hell, in that sense of just being so close to getting the job done and not realizing that goal and having to think about that for an entire year and compartmentalize and just try to keep the right perspective about this season and learn the lessons that we learned."
This time, everyone was healthy. And this time, no matter what anyone says about the Warriors stacking the deck by landing Durant in free agency last summer, you knew without a doubt that the best team had won.
“If we wind up winning this thing, then we have a champion,” Green’s mother, Mary Babers-Green, told USA TODAY Sports before the tipoff. “We won’t have any excuses, because no one is hurt, everyone is playing. Whoever wins this thing, there are no excuses. They won.”
True to their championship form, the Cavs wouldn’t go away.
After trailing by as much as 14 in the third quarter, they used a 11-3 run to cut the deficit to five on a Tristan Thompson putback layup that spiked the heart-rates of the sellout crowd. James’ desperation was contagious, and his ability to get to almost every loose ball helped keep the Cavs close.
Through two games of these Finals, the Warriors’ margin for error looked to be as wide as the San Francisco Bay. But the Cavs had cut into that chasm in Game 3 and 4, when some of Golden State’s old habits had come back to haunt them.
It was the same story early in Game 5, when the Cavs took advantage of six first-quarter Warriors turnovers and led 37-33 after the first quarter. The final sequence said it all, as Curry lost his dribble while driving on one end and J.R. Smith buried a left-wing three in transition on the other. Time and again, with James (21 first half points) and Irving (16 first half points) off to scorching starts, the Warriors’ blunders led to Cavs’ gift baskets.
But early in the second quarter, this Warriors team that had lost just once since Feb. 4 when its stars took part in the entire game rediscovered itself. Over the span of seven minutes and six seconds, and with the Cavs up eight, Golden State pulled away with a 28-4 run in which Cleveland missed nine of 11 shots and everyone from David West to Green, Durant, Curry, and Iguodala pitched in on the scoring efforts as the Warriors led 61-45. Cleveland cut the lead to 71-60 at halftime, with Smith burying a deep three-pointer from the left wing with 1.3 remaining.
"I think our guys just did a good job of hanging in there," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "We kept the lead at six, eight points — or the deficit. And it was just a matter of time before we were going to break through. We had that huge run in the second quarter, which changed everything."
Unlike Game 4, when the Cavs exploded for an NBA Finals record 86 points in the first half and led by 16, the Warriors were in control. Cleveland, which hit a Finals record 24 three-pointers in Game 4, had cooled from beyond the arc (six at halftime) while playing an even sloppier style than the Warriors (11 first half turnovers to Golden State’s eight). And as had been the case in the first three games, it was Durant (21 first half points) and Curry (20 first half points, five assists, four rebounds) leading the way.
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