The debate about super teams, about whether the league is aided or injured when the game’s premier players join forces for one franchise, will persist long after these NBA Finals are finished and a new/old champion receives the trophy.
I hate it. I love it. I hate it. I love it.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver even leaped into the conversation before Thursday’s clunker of a championship series opener, sounding very much like someone (Solomon?) attempting to split the baby.
“You always want to see great competition,” Silver said. “But having said that, this is real life. So, sure, the fan in me would love see more competition at times, but on the other hand, I’ve said it before. I think we should also celebrate excellence.”
Kevin Durant with the Golden State Warriors? From a purist’s perspective – and even from a human-nature perspective – this is a partnership to celebrate. While 29 other organizations and fans outside the Bay Area groan about the league’s balance of power, which these days leans heavily toward the Left Coast, Durant’s decision to sign with Golden State last summer feels like it was meant to be.
The veteran small forward, who was born to be a scorer, has snuggled up to the Warriors and the Bay Area like a warm blanket. A decade into his career, Durant performs with a club that plays to his strengths, tempers his bad habits, and gives him space amid exhaustive media demands and appearances.
During the Warriors’ series with Oklahoma City a year ago, when Durant and Russell Westbrook often contrasted their opponents’ fast-paced, free-flowing offense with isolation plays and time-wasting possessions, Golden State coach Steve Kerr stood on the sidelines, watching a different game. He envisioned the gangly 6-foot-9 Durant in a lineup that included two of the league’s greatest shooters, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, the fuse that lights the Warriors.
Whether you could turn Durant into a more willing passer and more aggressive defender, and make him more inclined to rely on teammates in critical moments, was never an issue for Kerr or anyone in the Warriors’ front office.
They wanted Durant. And Durant wanted them, too, for similar reasons. He sees the same game Kerr watches and was willing to adapt, playing more power forward than he did in Oklahoma City.
“We’re asking him to anchor the paint at times. It doesn’t come naturally to him,” said Kerr, who incorporated a few post-ups into his offense. “He’s really more of a guard than he is a big. When he’s locked in, he’s an all-league defender. (And) sometimes he’ll pass up a shot to give the ball to somebody else, and we’re like, ‘No, no.’ But what a great quality, especially as a superstar player, to want to make everybody better. That’s why he has fit in so well. Everybody loves playing with him.”
As was evident in Thursday’s opener, there are plenty of opportunities for Durant to be, well, Durant. In his NBA Finals debut with the Warriors, he was spectacular, torching the Cavaliers for 38 points.
Contributing to the festive mood, Durant engaged in a hilarious staredown with Rihanna, who had heckled him from her courtside seat. After draining a late three from the right side, he looked straight at the singer, expressionless, as if to say, “take that.”
When told during the postgame news conference that social media was buzzing about the incident, Durant leaned into the microphone and asked, innocently, “Really?”
Curry, seated alongside, laughed and advised, “Don’t get into that trap, man.”
“Yeah, I won’t get into that,” Durant replied with good nature. “I’m cool. Have fun with that.”
Throughout the season, Durant increasingly became comfortable in the Warriors’ loosey-goosey, often-playful environment, but like most athletes entering their physical prime, he’s mindful of the calendar and the importance of staying healthy.
Durant, who turns 29 in September, also has this in common with Curry: Both have overcome career-threatening injuries.
With Curry, it was his ankles. Concern about his longevity led him to sign a four-year, $44 million contract – a bargain for the two-time MVP.
Durant has had two scares. A fracture in his size-19 foot in October 2014 led to him missing the season and months of inactivity. This year, he collided with teammate Zaza Pachulia on Feb. 28 and suffered a knee fracture that sidelined him for the remainder of the regular season.
In the meantime, the Warriors continued cruising to the league’s best record. Entering Sunday’s Game 2 of the championship series, Golden State is a postseason juggernaut – undefeated (13-0) and seldom tested.
When LeBron James was asked what most impressed him about the Warriors’ performance, he replied bluntly, “K.D.”
“I mean, you take one of the best teams that we had ever assembled last year, then in the offseason you add a high-powered offensive talent like that, and a great basketball IQ like that, that’s what stands out,” James said. “I mean, it’s no ifs, ands, or buts. We got to figure out how to combat that.”
Imagine if Durant continues to perform at this level? The Fab Foursome can’t outrun the stunning seventh game collapse in last year’s Finals, but they can sprint to a second title in three years, and a first one for Durant.
This is why they get together, for better or for worse. James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade in Miami. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen in Boston. These Warriors in Oakland.
“It’s a little different,” said Durant, who reached the Finals once with the Thunder. “I can’t lie. I went when I was 23 years old, and it felt like the Western Conference finals was almost like the championship. We have a different goal in mind. When we look at it, this is just a blip on the radar in terms of our whole life. You want to embrace it and enjoy it.”