CLEVELAND – Kevin Durant buried the Cavaliers.
In an unbelievable final 75 seconds of Game 3 on Wednesday, Durant took the Warriors on his back while scoring seven unanswered points and, if history is any indication, ending the Finals with a 118-113 victory over Cleveland.
No team has ever recovered from the 3-0 deficit the Cavs face. Last year’s Warriors were the first to collapse with a 3-1 lead in the Finals, but that team didn’t have Durant.
He’s been the difference between the Cavaliers winning the championship in 2016 and being in position to get swept a year later.
“When this series even started we knew what we was dealing with,” LeBron James said. “I said it after we won the Eastern Conference Finals that we’re getting ready for a juggernaut. It’s probably the most, most firepower I’ve played in my career. I played against some great teams, but I don’t think no team has had this type of firepower.”
Cleveland had been leading for most of the second half thanks to amazing play from both Kyrie Irving and James. But after taking a 113-107 lead, the Cavs froze up, ran out of gas, and went scoreless for the final 3:09.
The final attempt was a potential tying 3-pointer from James that was stripped by Andre Igoudala, sending the fans toward the exits in the franchise’s most heartbreaking defeat since LeBron’s return. Durant’s seven straight points – which included the go-ahead 3-pointer with 45.3 seconds left – were sandwiched between four points from Curry, accounting for 11 unanswered points for the Warriors.
“We knew in that situation get (Durant) the rock,” said Klay Thompson, who finished with 30 points for Golden State. “He’s seven-foot, can shoot over almost anybody and has an amazing shooting touch.”
With a victory Friday in Game 4, they’ll become the first team in history to go undefeated in the postseason. Wednesday was their most important win despite James and Irving combining for 77 points. The duo took turns dissecting the Warriors, with James scoring 27 of his 39 points in the first half, and Irving dropping 21 of his 38 in the second. James also had 11 rebounds and nine assists.
But they also played almost the entire second half together (Irving never sat and LeBron did for only 34 seconds), making it more likely they’d fade down the stretch. Neither of them scored in the final 4:28, combining to miss their final five attempts.
“We just kept telling the guys, they’re going to get tired,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Stay in front of them. Force them into outside shots, if you can. Fatigue will play a role. And I think when you get guys playing 45, 44 minutes, basically attacking one-on-one the whole game, it’s — you hope eventually it’s going to take its toll.”
Irving and James got no help from the supporting cast, including Kevin Love (nine points), the disappearing Tristan Thompson (zero points) and the bench overall (Irving’s backup, Deron Williams, is 0-for-11 with zero points for the entire series). Still, their 71-69 lead on Love’s 3-pointer with nine minutes remaining in the third quarter was Cleveland’s first in the second half of any game in the Finals.
Durant finished with 31 points and remains the frontrunner for NBA Finals MVP, justifying his controversial summer move to Golden State. Curry was a little off kilter but still finished with 26 points and 13 rebounds, while his backcourt mate Klay Thompson had his best game of the Finals, going 6-of-11 from three.
Although most on the outside had already given up on the Cavs, the crowd inside Quicken Loans Arena had brought its belief. From the start the fans were jacked up, raising the decibel levels considerably from the games at Golden State.
Kerr’s big concern was withstanding the inevitable emotional boost the Cavs had from coming home. Last year, the Warriors were beaten up in the first quarter of Game 3 in Cleveland, and were blown out by 30 points.
But that team didn’t have Durant. When the Cavs pounced in the opening moments, Durant responded with eight points in the opening 4:20. And when LeBron was subbed out with 1:49 remaining in the first quarter, the Warriors responded with a 10-0 run to take a seven-point lead.
But the Warriors not only absorbed the first punch, they countered with a haymaker.
There was a scary moment midway through the first quarter, when James collapsed to the court after taking a shoulder to his face from teammate Tristan Thompson. The arena went silent for a minute with James on his back before erupting in an ‘MVP’ chant. James was peeled off the court, went to the bench for a timeout, and hit an and-one layup on the next play.
Crisis averted. Until the final three minutes, when the Cavs couldn’t score and couldn’t stop Durant.