The Cleveland Cavaliers really miss Harrison Barnes.
What a difference a year and an All Star small forward make. The Cavs went from not needing to defend Barnes in the 2016 NBA Finals to being unable to guard his celebrated replacement, Kevin Durant, in Game 1 on Thursday.
Pressure? What pressure? Durant marked his return to the NBA Finals with a dominating performance in the Golden State Warriors’ 113-91 victory. Durant finished with 38 points, eight assists and eight rebounds and won his individual match-up with LeBron James, who may have been understating it last week when he called the Warriors “a juggernaut.”
“They’re the best team I’ve ever seen,” Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said after Game 1.
“We think we can play better,” Stephen Curry said. “And play smarter and be more aggressive and continue this momentum that we’ve built. It’s a good start.”
Even with Draymond Green and Klay Thompson scoring a combined 15 points on 6 for 28 shooting, the Warriors were never threatened in the second half while beating the team that came into Oakland last June and won Games 5 and 7.
This Warriors team, however, is better. Much better, in fact, because of Durant. Golden State is a perfect 13-0 this postseason and has won 28 of its last 29 games overall. Durant made 14 of 26 shots in the series opener, including 10 of 18 in the first half while the rest of his teammates shot 16 for 43.
“I’m only as good as my teammates, “Durant said. “I might not be able to get those shots the next game.”
Durant’s presence has made Curry the No. 2 option but the former two-time MVP looks comfortable in that role. Curry had 28 points, 10 assists and six rebounds, including an offensive rebound he grabbed while being sandwiched by LeBron and Tristan Thompson.
It was a rough opener for LeBron, who in his eight trips to the NBA Finals is 1-7 in Game 1. He scored just nine of his 28 points in the second half. He couldn’t do anything to slow down Durant and he had eight turnovers, twice as many as Golden State had as a team.
Cleveland had won nine straight road playoff games dating back to Game 5 of the 2016 NBA Finals but that was also before Durant, a top five talent, altered the course of NBA history by making the controversial move last summer from Oklahoma City to the Bay Area. The Warriors won a title without him and then broke the record for regular season wins the following year. But when Cleveland and LeBron took out the Warriors in seven games, Golden State received the greatest consolation prize: Durant.
We don’t have to like Durant’s decision. No matter how Durant or his team try to spin it, he took the easy way out. He joined a powerhouse team while crushing the title hopes of the Thunder. His free agent credo was, “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
LeBron made a similar move seven years ago by joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. That group went to four straight Finals, winning two, including the first in 2012 against Durant and OKC. All these years later, the talk isn’t about LeBron taking a shortcut. The talk is about his legacy and how he measures up to Michael Jordan.
Durant also cares about his place in history and winning championships gets the conversation started. The toughest one to get is that first one. It took LeBron until his third trip to win that elusive ring. Durant is hoping to break through in his second go around and he’s off to a great start.
He made it look so easy, producing six dunks in the first half, which tied his career high for a single game. During one sequence, he grabbed a defensive rebound and dribbled the length of the court for an uncontested dunk. The defensive breakdown began with Curry sprinting into the corner and somehow drawing both LeBron and Kyrie Irving toward him as the court parted like the Red Sea, and Durant had his highlight for the night.
“We’re playing a great team,” Durant said. “We know they’re not going to give up.”
The Cavs rebounded from a 3-1 series deficit last June to win their first title in franchise history. One of the keys in their comeback was Barnes becoming a non-factor. Barnes, who joined the Dallas Mavericks last July, scored a total of 65 points in that series.
Durant was a threat to score that many in Game 1.