Up until the final minutes of Game 3 of the 2017 NBA Finals, it looked a lot like Game 3 from the Finals a year ago: Kyrie Irving and LeBron James were transcendent—the latter even after taking a bone-rattling shot from teammate Tristan Thompson in the first quarter—scoring 38 and 39 points respectively and answering every frenzied Warriors run with one of their own. With two minutes to go, they held onto a four-point lead.
Then Kevin Durant happened. He scored seven of his 31 points in the game’s final minute and a half, including a backbreaking pull-up three in transition with 45 seconds to go that gave the Warriors the lead for good. He added a pair of free throws, Steph Curry added two more (he finished with 26), and the Warriors left the Q with a 3-0 lead. No one in NBA history has ever come back from 3-0, and it seems impossible anyone could against these Warriors—but then again, we were saying things a lot like this last year too.
If last year taught us anything at all, it’s that just because something is unprecedented doesn’t mean it can’t happen
The series is over, unless it isn’t. If last year taught us anything at all, it’s that no lead is safe, and just because something is unprecedented doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Of course the Warriors learned that lesson too, which is why they went out and traded in their Harrison Barnes for a Kevin Durant, a 6’9” (or 6’10,” or 6’11”) small forward and horseman of the apocalypse.
Asked what the difference with the Warriors was this year, James had a simple answer: “KD.” And that was even before Game 3. Durant is currently the odds-on favorite to win Finals MVP despite a third straight dominant Finals performance from James (who is currently averaging a 30-point triple-double), and has re-entered the “best player in the NBA” discussion. That dagger three last night was both the reason the Warriors brought him in and the reason he wanted to come to the Warriors to begin with. They want him to take that shot, and he wants to be the one to take it.
This is nothing against Steph Curry, who in today’s all-or-nothing, hot-take environment finds himself both winning back-to-back MVPs and being disparaged as a non-factor in a 2015 Finals where he averaged 26 ppg. Curry might be the third- or even fourth-best player in these Finals, and we suspect he’ll be fine with that if the year ends with another ring. A big reason the Warriors are so good, their offense so unstoppable, is that no one player feels the need to be the undisputed alpha dog. And if they don’t know where the ball is going in crunchtime, well, neither does the defense.
There was no doubt where the ball was going last night. Durant brought the ball up with bad intentions, got an exhausted James back on his heels, and buried one of the most disrespectful threes in NBA history. KD is, as they say, not nice. Scottie Pippen and Tracy McGrady used to use that shot effectively too—there’s nothing like a pull-up three in transition to kill a defense’s spirit—but Durant’s was an extinction-level event. For all the fight and all the effort the Cavs put in, to lose at home? Like that? Unthinkable. Even more unthinkable is the Cavaliers having to come back on Friday night to do it all over again.
Yes, the Cavaliers face an impossible path, but they faced one last year too. The Warriors undoubtedly have zero interest in playing another game in Oakland this year. Because if you let the Cavaliers get one game, they might gain the confidence to get another, and well, we all know where that goes. Based on last night, the series likely ends in a sweep. But based on last year, we know that even the most unlikely thing can happen. Even if it’s never happened before.