Kevin Durant walked out of the Golden State Warriors’ locker room in rose-colored sweatpants, not thinking about his legacy, or whether this was another defining moment of his career. He took his girlfriend’s hand and strolled down a hallway at Quicken Loans Arena, having just devastated the Cleveland Cavaliers.
He was the one who put the rest of the Warriors on his narrow shoulders and vaulted them to a 3-0 lead in the NBA Finals, looking effortless. And just like he did in last year’s Game 3, he coolly hit a devastating three-pointer in the game’s closing minute Wednesday.
“That’s what superstars do,” Stephen Curry said.
Said LeBron James: “You know, he’s an assassin. And that was one of those assassin plays right there.”
Golden State beat Cleveland 110-102 behind 43 points from Durant. A year after he pushed the Warriors to their second championship in three years, Durant showed he still can’t be ignored. No other Warriors player scored more than 11 points, but it didn’t matter. For the second year in a row the Warriors have opened the Finals by winning the first three games. Wednesday’s loss was Cleveland’s second home loss of this year’s playoffs, and first since the first round.
This wasn’t a game when James had to do everything himself just to keep Cleveland in the game. He provided the game’s first highlight when he tossed the ball off the backboard and dunked off his own assist in the first quarter. James also notched his 10th Finals triple-double with 33 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds.
But his much-maligned supporting cast elevated their own play. Kevin Love had a double-double by halftime and scored 20 points with 13 rebounds. Rodney Hood, playing in his first game of the Finals, scored 15 points, making seven of 10 shots. JR Smith finished with 13.
It was Durant, not James, who played the role of the overburdened star.
His point guard, Curry, missed his first nine three-pointers and scored only 11 points, a game after setting a Finals record with nine three-pointers. Power forward Draymond Green picked up three quick fouls and finished with 10 points.
“This is the beauty of this team and the luxury that we have of having multiple big-time scorers,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “There’s going to be nights like this for all of them.”
Playing in front of their raucous home crowd, the Cavaliers opened the game hot. They knocked around the Warriors with their physical play and took a 12-point lead in the first quarter. Smith, facing the warm embrace of a friendlier crowd than the Oakland fans who mockingly cheered him Sunday, scored seven first-quarter points, tying Love for the team lead in that period.
The Cavaliers couldn’t get too far ahead and the lead was only six at the half.
“We didn’t want to panic and let them push the lead from 12 to 16, 17 going into the half,” said Durant, who had 24 points at the break.
The teams traded blows in the fourth, but Durant had the final word. He sank a long three-pointer with less than a minute remaining to give the Warriors a six-point lead, putting the game out of Cleveland’s reach. Green screamed in Durant’s face, but Durant barely reacted.
“I was definitely excited,” Durant said. “It’s hard to make shots at this level in the NBA, and I understand that. But at the same time I knew the game wasn’t over. I’ve seen some crazy stuff happen in my years of playing basketball.”
No such crazy stuff happened for the Warriors on Wednesday. And that three-pointer evoked memories of his legacy-changing three-pointer in Game 3 here last year, though that one gave the Warriors a lead, while this one extended it.
“Definitely from right in the same area, just a little bit deeper,” Green said. “But this game for him was like deja vu of Game 3 last year for him, just all the way around.”
On that night a year ago, Durant turned from a player tagging along with a championship team to a player fueling a championship team.
This year, Durant scored 26 points in Games 1 and 2. Each time, though, something overshadowed his own play. In Game 1 it was the drama at the end of regulation and James’ 51 points. In Game 2 it was Curry’s record-setting night.
On Wednesday night in Cleveland, there was no ignoring Durant.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli