Kevin Durant is the Cleveland Cavaliers Assassin ... Again
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Kevin Durant, Michael Jordan, LeBron James

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Kevin Durant is the Cleveland Assassin … Again

Kevin Durant is the Cleveland Assassin … Again

Leading the Cleveland Cavaliers by six with less than a minute to play, Kevin Durant calmly walked to the huddle without emotion. For any player, the 43-point, 13-rebound, and seven-assist performance would be a legacy defining moment. For the Golden State Warriors’ superstar, it was just another Wednesday in the office.

Durant put the Quicken Loans Arena in shambles with a 32-foot pull-up 3-pointer to make it a two possession game to put the game and Finals out of reach. His enigmatic stroll during the timeout was the perfect encapsulation of these Warriors.

Directly in front of him, Stephen Curry’s screams faded into a wide smile. It was one of the roughest shooting nights of Curry’s career, finishing 3-for-16 from the field. Durant merely walked unfazed. This, after all, is what the Warriors brought him in for…when nothing is going right on the road, Kevin Durant provides the Warriors with a stone cold assassin’s bag of tricks. One that brings a variety and balance to the offense, giving them a counter to any defensive strategy.

Warriors, Draymond Green, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry

Behind him, Draymond Green roared as Draymond Green does. Nobody on the Warriors wants to sweep Cleveland more than Green, who was bordering the line of ejection all night after receiving a technical foul in the first quarter. Green does all of the necessary dirty work for Golden State and covers more defensive ground than anyone on the court. His meticulous approach throughout the game gives them an opportunity to experience these last-minute culminations. And he’ll always let opponents know how dominant they are.

A backbreaking three this deep, especially on the road, is just rude. Durant called for Iguodala to come set the final ball screen, while Cleveland thinks he wants to get a full switch with J.R. Smith on him. Instead, he doesn’t even wait for the screen to be set. He uses it as a decoy and decides to pull up from the Quicken Loans Arena parking lot. That fraction of a second, and tiny gap from Cleveland trying to switch, was all he needed.

The benefit of having three Hall-of-Fame scorers or shooters is you can get a healthy dosage of everything. You aren’t tied down to just one method of generating offense. But, any coach would preach about how difficult that is to manage with professional stars.

This team, with all of the wide-ranging personalities and blend of styles, is able to find the perfect balance in critical moments. The only question mark appeared during the Western Conference Finals, when the Houston Rockets made them uncomfortable in most of their signature actions and sets. They had to adjust on the fly, which often led to Durant taking a bulk of the criticism when he took (and missed) a ton of shots out of isolation. In reality, it was just the brilliant personnel by the Rockets and execution of Jeff Bzdelik’s defensive gameplan that deserved recognition.

Cleveland, after allowing 108.9 points per 100 possessions after the roster “upgrades,” never had the shrewdness on defense or adequate roster to limit Durant, Curry, and Klay Thompson.

Durant’s mediocre Game 1 — by his standards — was enough to spark one of the most monstrous, efficient two-game stretches of his career. He knew he took questionable shots in the Finals opener, vowing to look for smarter opportunities the rest of the way.

His response in Game 2 was a 26-point outing on 10-of-14 shooting. Out of those 14 shots, six of them were taken from inside the paint.

The masterpiece in Game 3, on the road, was something from a different planet.

Durant was scintillating in every facet of the game, picking up the necessary slack when Curry and Thompson couldn’t finish any of the opportunities they created. Carrying his team offensively, Durant was 15-of-23 shooting. He was 4-of-8 from inside the paint, 5-of-6 on mid-range jumpers, and virtually a flamethrower from long-distance by shooting 6-of-9.

 

Most of his jumpers were so ludicrous — either off a crossover or with a hand directly in his vision — that it really mirrored Kobe Bryant in one of his memorable 2006 games, or even LeBron James’s humiliation of the Raptors last month. He was consistently attacking the mismatch and the Cavs still did a decent job contesting without fouling. It just didn’t matter:

Those didn’t include the filthiest attempt of the night, though, which Durant canned in crunchtime over an outstretched Kevin Love. The Warriors got what they wanted on a switch, with Iguodala half-heartedly screening LeBron. Love stepped over, and gets an A-plus for effort here:

At that moment, the crowd began to get nervous. Of all fans, they are the ones aware of how unstoppable a force of nature is, since they are spoiled by LeBron’s versatile attack nearly every home game. When Durant got rolling in the fourth quarter, everyone knew what it was slowly cooking up to be. Hands started going up in the air in disbelief. The collective “Ahhhhhh” every time Durant dropped one through the net on perfect defensive coverage. Even the Cavs’ bench, including team mascot Kendrick Perkins, started to shake their heads.

Durant setting a playoff career-high, in a game that could’ve shifted the series momentum and given the Cavs some wiggle room, just added another layer to his all-time status. Plus, this is the second straight year he’s answered the bell. Every time his friendly rival senses a crack in the door, Durant slams it shut with authority. While nobody should have the temerity to argue whether he’s the “best player in the world” considering the two supporting casts, it is certainly fair to discuss how high Durant — with a second championship looming — has elevated his name among the legends.

To no surprise, the degree of his Game 3 demolition had rarely been achieved before. Since rebounds are often a random and lucky stat to accumulate, let’s just knock his 13 down to 10 as the minimum to include here. An individual game of 43 points, 10 rebounds, and seven assists had only been recorded 12 different times in playoff history (by seven players) before Wednesday. Those were Charles Barkley, John Havlicek, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Jerry West, LeBron James (4x), and Russell Westbrook. They had a 8-4 record in those games. Durant joined them with a commanding victory to essentially clinch the Finals.

Durant shot over 65 percent in Game 3 as well. If you add the criteria of 60 percent or better from the field, that list shrinks to just five players in playoff history, including Durant.

It’s always a tough conversation when gauging, or ranking, the greatest scorers in league history. Different eras called for different shot profiles. The three-point arc wasn’t introduced until 1979. Defensive rules were changed before this new breed of scorers started flooding the NBA. Physicality, as well as the speed and spatial differences on the court, have vastly changed.

But if all things were equal and we were able to drop a 7-foot guard like Durant in any era, he would likely be the undisputed greatest scorer ever. While he is not as polished and impactful as prime LeBron or Jordan, he’s just as unguardable when you consider the height of his shot release, innate ball-handling to slither through traffic and create an window of separation, and the sense of helplessness he gives defenders. If you get too close and physical, you put Durant on the line. He’s a career 88 percent free throw shooter. You sag off or fail to put a body on him, and he’s rising over you for a clean shot, or using a simple fadeaway that mirrors Dirk Nowitzki’s level of indomitable skill.

Nobody shreds the mid-range like Jordan, with his speed and craftiness making it easy.

Nobody finishes at the rim like LeBron, with a dual-threat of a jumper giving him a runway.

Nobody torches big men like Kareem, with the most untouchable shot the game has ever seen.

But at the same time, nobody is able to rattle Durant, with him having an assortment of traits from each of those scorers. He doesn’t have a scoring weakness or physical limitation against any defender. If he’s missing, it’s because he’s off. We’ve seen Durant get uncomfortable at times, but the combination of height and shooting touch usually find a way to take over throughout a series.

Throughout NBA regular season history, here is every player to average at least 24 points per game with a true shooting percentage of 58 or higher:

  • Adrian Dantley (SF) — 24.3 points on 61.7% TS
  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (C) — 24.6 points on 59.2% TS
  • LeBron James (SF) — 27.2 points on 58.6% TS
  • Kevin Durant (SF)

I left Durant’s numbers blank for a reason.

Now, let’s drop the scoring average to just 22 points, but increase the efficiency to 60 percent true shooting. There are five players:

  • Adrian Dantley (SF) — numbers above
  • Charles Barkley (PF) — 22.1 points on 61.2% TS
  • Stephen Curry (PG) — 23.1 points on 61.7% TS
  • James Harden (SG) — 23.0 points on 60.8% TS
  • Kevin Durant (SF)

Durant is in both groups — the one with lower volume/higher efficiency, and the one with higher volume/lower efficiency.

You know why? Because for his career, Durant averages 27.1 points per game on 61.1 percent true shooting — the only player in NBA history that efficient with over a 25-point average.

That’s just for the regular season.

Digging into his playoff numbers after the Game 3 win, he belongs at the same lunch table as LeBron and Jordan. Remember, we’re only talking about scoring ability:

In his 126 playoff games thus far, Durant is near the 60 percent true shooting level with an even greater scoring average than his regular season figure. He’s always been known as a better three-point shooter than LeBron (and certainly Jordan), but the fact that he’s so close to LeBron on his inside efficiency is striking.

“He’s one of the best players this league has ever seen,” James said after Game 3. “His ability to handle the ball, shoot the ball, and make plays at his length, at his size and speed. You definitely tip your hat. That’s what he does. He’s an assassin. That was one of those assassin plays right there.”

Durant’s outburst over the the last couple games has him in prime position to win a second Finals MVP award, despite how badly Stephen Curry probably wanted his first. But with Curry and Thompson having nightmare performances by their standards, the Warriors needed every bit of Durant’s career night.

Only one victory separates Golden State from joining the extremely short list of dynasties built throughout the NBA’s journey.

*All stats via NBA.com and Basketball-Reference*