Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) in Game 1 of the NBA Finals in Oakland, Calif., Thursday, June 1, 2017. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
By Joe Hawkes-Beamon
Sports Radio Service Writer
OAKLAND, Calif — The basketball world was on pins and needles for the start of Round Three between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, and both teams lived up to the hype for the majority of Game 1 Thursday night before Kevin Durant and the Warriors took control and ran away with the victory, 113-91.
Durant, who many pundits questioned his decision to join a high-powered Warriors team that had already played in two Finals prior to his arrival, showed out in his first Finals game since 2012 as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder; pouring in a game-high 38 points, eight rebounds, and eight assists to go along with zero turnovers on 14-for-26 shooting from the floor.
Not since the great Michael Jordan during the 1998 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz that a player had at least 30 points, five assists, and zero turnovers in a game before Durant’s acts in Game 1 according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
But an epic performance on the NBA’s biggest stage is what we expect from Durant, a former league MVP, is it not?
Golden State already has a two-time league MVP (and the only unanimous MVP in league history) in Stephen Curry, who looks healthier as ever at this time this year than he did in last year’s Finals after adding 28 points, 10 assists, and six rebounds in Game 1, including 6-for-11 on 3s.
Add in Draymond Green (nine points and 11 rebounds), an odds on favorite to take home the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award this season after leading the NBA in steals per game (2.03), to go along with Klay Thompson, who despite shooting under 40-percent from both the floor (36-percent) and from beyond the three-point line (34-percent) during the postseason, was Golden State’s best defender in Game 1 holding would-be scorers to 1-for-12 shooting from the floor as the primary defender.
With all due respect to Harrison Barnes, who had a breakout season in Year 1 for the Mavericks averaging a career-high 19.2 points per game and was a fan favorite for all of Dub Nation, but his no-show during last year’s Finals (most notably in Games 5-7 where he scored just 15 points on 5-for-32 shooting (3-for-15 on 3s) after Golden State had a commanding 3-1 lead in the series still stings Warriors’ fans.
But Durant is clearly the difference-maker and much better upgrade from Barnes this year for the Warriors and will continue to be a huge match-up problem for Cleveland with Game 2 Sunday night at Oracle Arena at 5:00 p.m. PDT on the horizon.
And that’s even with first-ballot hall of famer LeBron James on the other side.
Circle back to Game 1: When Durant was on the floor, the Warriors out-scored Cleveland by 18, and in the 40 minutes that James was on the floor, the Warriors out-scored Cleveland by 22, with much of the damage coming in the second half for Golden State.
I counted at least six times in the first half of Game 1 where Cleveland’s defense just allowed Durant to cruise through the lane like he had a FasTrak embedded in his jersey for easy dunks.
At times in the game, it almost appeared that Cleveland were content on allowing Durant score at will and didn’t want to be burned by Golden State’s shooting.
Golden State shot 45-for-106 (42-percent) from the floor.
Making his NBA record seventh-consecutive Finals appearance, James was Cleveland’s most effective player, finishing with a team-high 28 points, 15 rebounds, and eight assists, but made just 9-for-20 from the floor.
If James could’ve recorded two more assists, he would’ve tied Lakers’ legend and NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson for the most triple-doubles in Finals history with eight, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Johnson led Los Angeles to nine Finals appearances and won five championships as the leader of the “Showtime” Lakers of the 1980s. Johnson’s teams were 5-4 in the Finals while James’s teams are just 3-4.
Outside of Kyrie Irving’s 24 points on 10-for-22 shooting from the floor, the defending NBA Champions’ supporting cast came up empty in Game 1.
Kevin Love did have 15 points and a game-high 21 rebounds, but shot just 4-for-13 from the floor.
The Warriors’ bench barely out-scored the Cavaliers’ bench 24-21.
Cleveland can’t let Golden State have their way with them in Game 2 as they did in Game 1 if they have any chance of gaining a split in Oakland before the series shifts to Northeast Ohio for Games 3 and 4 on Wednesday and Friday.
Golden State held the advantage in points-in-the-paint, out-scoring the Cavaliers 56-30 and dominating the fast-break, out-scoring Cleveland 27-9.
As a team, Cleveland shot 30-for-86 (34-percent) from the floor.
The 20 turnovers the Cavaliers committed that led to 21 points for Golden State was a testament to their superb defense they’ve collectively played all season long, forcing teams to shoot a league-low 43-percent from the field and finished tops in turnovers forced per game with 14.8 during the regular season.
In the postseason, Golden State is ratcheting up the defense intensity allowing just 41-percent from the floor through 13 games.
Not surprisingly, Golden State is 13-0 in the postseason this year, three wins from securing their second championship in three years.
Durant will have his fingerprints on the outcome of the Finals, believe that.
Win or lose.