OAKLAND — LeBron James was asked after the game what stood out from Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
“KD,” James said simply.
Kevin Durant showed up to Game 1 of the 2017 Finals a different player, on a different team, in a different place and as a different person than the one he was when he first played on the NBA‘s biggest stage in 2012. He’s ready this time. He’s better this time. And his team is a whole lot better this time.
Welcome to fully actualized Kevin Durant, the alpha dog of a full-strength Warriors team that looked positively unstoppable in their 113-91 victory over the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers to take a 1-0 lead in their best-of-seven series.
“We were talking about it before the game,” Mike Brown said. “Steve suggested getting the ball into [Durant’s] hands early, and KD didn’t settle. He got downhill.”
More specifically, he got downhill on LeBron James. From the jump, he attacked James, who clearly isn’t used to being on the wrong end of 1-on-1 matchups.
James routinely took bad angles. Some of it was him. Some of it was his teammates. Some of it was bad luck, like when Kyrie Irving thought he was switching onto Curry in transition and LeBron thought Irving was staying with Durant, who was closest to him. Such is the confusion of trying to keep track of so many weapons.
This is true, but James also just flat-out got beat on plays. Here he tries to anticipate Durant’s move over the screen, Durant cuts backdoor, and he’s gone.
Next up: James takes a bad angle, and the slip turns into social media fodder, but he was also out of position, asleep for Durant’s catch and move.
“It’s not about me,” Durant said. “He’s LeBron James, you guys know what he can do. It’s not about the [1-on-1] matchup. I just try and do my part, stay locked in on both ends, and have some fun out there.”
“I try and not predetermine anything, just go out there and hoop,” Durant said.
Meanwhile, as James struggled with Durant, with no backline help, Durant and the Warriors layered their defense vs. James, with Zaza Pachulia and Draymond Green contesting behind Durant.
But KD was terrific on his own, too.
James finished with eight turnovers, and shot 9 of 20 from the field. The Cavaliers were outscored by 22 points with James on the floor, extinguishing any hope for the Cavs.
The roles seemed reversed form 2012 on Thursday night. This time, it was James with a team that just wasn’t on the same level as Durant’s dominant squad. After the game, James stopped coming off the floor in the tunnel, turned, and waited for his teammates, slapping fives and giving encouragement without saying anything, through every player, even Dahntay Jones. James was clearly trying to be a leader, be a presence even in the aftermath of a blowout. But that support is not going to turn J.R. Smith into Klay Thompson, Kyle Korver into Andre Iguodala, or make up for any of the other talent gaps.
Last year’s Cavs team was good enough last year, in that series, vs. that Warriors team.
You can look for a bunch of Xs and Os to explain what happened Thursday night, but LeBron said it best at the top. It’s KD. That’s what happened. Durant used to spend summers working out with James, trying to learn from him, emulate him. James taught him how far away he was, just as Tim Duncan’s Spurs taught James that when he was 22.
Durant has the upper hand in these Finals. He outplayed James. You can argue it’s because of the superior team he put around him himself, but he learned that from James, too. James will have to play better in this series for the Cavs to have any chance, and he can, and he will. But for them to have a realistic chance, he may also need Durant to play worse, and after making a decision that brought upon him the scorn of the sports world, Durant shows no sign of letting up, nor do any of the Warriors after their 3-1 catastrophe last year.
Yes, the Warriors have the better team on paper. But that’s what Durant learned the hard way he’d need. He’s put himself in the position to challenge the best player in the world.