CLEVELAND – The Golden State Warriors’ recruitment of Kevin Durant was underway a year ago, with their interest peaking during Durant’s performance with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference finals. Durant had covered every position on the floor, his near 7-foot frame and dangling arms aggravating Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes. He had played the best basketball of his career, and very little of his improvement had to do with offense.
Durant has been brilliant on both ends of the court in these NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the continued maturation of one of the most potent scorers in league history. He had always been a brilliant scorer, always had the frame and long arms to create and force mismatches.
Now, Durant admits his transformation and acceptance of defensive responsibilities didn’t come naturally. It wasn’t until his old Thunder team reached the postseason for the first time and he immersed himself into the game-to-game video room that he understood more than offense.
“It started when I first made the playoffs in 2010, and once you go over scouting reports, defense is the only concern,” Durant said Tuesday. “That’s when I started to realize how important defense is. I know that’s kind of late in my career, but that’s really when I started to focus in on the importance of getting a stop, rebounding – the other parts of the game outside of trying to make plays on the offensive end.”
Durant and Curry are making their case as one of the best duos to lead a championship team, and the Warriors’ half-court defense has forced the Cavaliers to embrace the up-tempo style.
The Warriors’ offensive pitch to Durant last offseason centered on the pace-and-space style, the constant ball movement, but a moment in time gave them a glimpse into more potential for this partnership. Their realization about Durant’s two-way upside, his ability to create a near “unstoppable” level of dominance, came in the 2016 conference finals, when he nearly toppled a burgeoning dynasty as Oklahoma City took a 3-1 lead but eventually faltered.
Durant now stands on the doorstep of a championship over the Cavaliers. He has totaled 71 points through two games, but also has posted 22 rebounds, five blocks and three steals. A year ago, the Warriors understood the depths of Durant’s prowess, not only offensively but defensively. The perfecting of Durant continues.
“What we saw in our series with Oklahoma City, that’s what we envisioned from K.D.,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “We knew he could guard multiple positions, protect the rim. That’s what we envisioned.”
The Cavaliers have needed to contend with the constant threats on this Warriors roster, and the tenacious team defense to go with it. Cleveland is reeling, to be sure, but LeBron James and Kyrie Irving will bring superstar production back home. The Cavaliers’ challenge has become the supporting cast – the J.R. Smiths, the Tristan Thompsons – contributing in its roles. Otherwise, Golden State will be too much, too good.
“It’s just basketball,” James said.
Just basketball, and James’ counterpart has fully understood the nuances that increasingly matter in June. These Warriors are arguably the most powerful offensive team the league has seen, and the player who has changed everything, changed The Trilogy, has given just as many complete possessions on the other end. Just basketball, and Kevin Durant is on his way to possibly his best yet as Game 3 nears Wednesday night.
“He was a monster defensively, blocking shots, guarding everybody last year,” Kerr said of Durant. “That’s what we envisioned for our team.”
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