Last year's playoff run for the Warriors changed the narrative on Kevin Durant. He was the go-to scorer on a championship team that lost only one game the entire postseason. His 3-pointer over LeBron James in Game 3 of the 2017 NBA Finals put the "clutch gene" chatter to rest, and he finally added a title to his resume. He also entered the conversation for being the best player in the game.
"[Kevin Durant] may be the best player in the world," ESPN analyst Paul Pierce said after Game 2 of last year's Finals. "I mean, we're on the final stage. LeBron is giving you good numbers. What can't [Durant] do? What can't he do on the court?"
Flash forward to Wednesday night's Game 3, and guess who did it again? In a game in which Stephen Curry struggled mightily from the floor (11 points on 3-16 shooting, 1-10 from 3-point range), Durant was simply spectacular. He single-handedly kept the contest competitive in the first half with 24 points and eight rebounds, finishing with 43 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists.
And yet, despite everything he has done with Golden State, Durant's place on the Warriors is somewhat odd. This is clearly Curry's team even though Durant is the best overall basketball player on the roster.
Durant and the Warriors will likely win a second consecutive championship, whether it comes Friday night in Cleveland or back at Oracle Arena in Oakland. And if he decides to stick with Golden State in the years to come (he has already said he plans to re-sign this offseason), he will more than likely win additional championships.
But the number of rings on Durant's fingers may not matter historically when it comes to this team.
James' career path is helpful when trying to decipher how we will view Durant down the line. While we will always remember LeBron's championship runs, we will view them differently. The two rings that he won in Miami validated him as an all-time great. However, the murmurs still existed - those championships would have meant more with the Cavs. And it was simply because he had to join forces with two Hall of Famers in Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in order to obtain them.
It was not until James brought a championship to Cleveland that many fans put him in the same stratosphere as Michael Jordan. Even with two All-Stars in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, James had to take his game to a new level in order for the Cavs to win their first title. It was clearly James' team.
The same cannot be said for Durant. Does he have to produce consistently? Not necessarily. He can score 26 points on 8-of-22 shooting in a Finals game and still get the win. If James (or any other No. 1 option) has an off night on this stage, we know the result.
The Warriors continue to rack up Ws even when Durant is not the guy leading the charge. However, it's not as though he hasn't been playing well - quite the opposite. In all 13 career Finals games, Durant has scored at least 25 points. It would be foolish to say that Durant does not play well in the big moments.
Stats for Kevin Durant and LeBron James in the Finals games in which they've both played:- Justin Kubatko (@jkubatko) June 7, 2018
KD - 13 GP (8-5), 32.6 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 4.5 APG, 55 FG%, 90 FT%
LJ - 13 GP (5-8), 32.6 PPG, 10.6 RPG, 9.2 APG, 52 FG%, 77 FT%
But he does not shoulder the same responsibility as past and current stars. Part of the beauty of watching Durant in Oklahoma City was knowing he could go for 40-plus at any time. Game 3 served as a reminder of that.
Curry is the heart and soul of the Warriors. When the offense is flowing through him, there is a different feel to the game overall. At times, Durant becomes an afterthought, the most outstanding role player the league has ever seen. This is not a knock on Durant - he had the right to choose his team as a free agent, and he wasn't a "coward" or "snake" for making a personal and professional decision - but it does raise questions on how he will be viewed down the line.
Even taking into account Durant's most recent performance, these Finals have been about Curry reasserting his place in the Warriors hierarchy. His heroics in Game 2 (an NBA record nine 3-pointers) pushed him to the top of the Finals MVP rankings - though Durant may have something to say about that in Game 4.
Curry will always get the credit for this dynasty. Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green were part of the original core, so they can enjoy all of the success with none of the "yeah, but..." statements Durant faces.
And maybe this does not bother Durant.
"I knew that I was pretty damn good and I knew I worked extremely hard," Durant recently told The Athletic when asked about joining the Warriors in 2016, "but I needed that validation from my peers and teams and GMs, people that are really into the game, to really help me feel good about myself and help me feel confident and let me know that what I was doing was working."
What Durant is doing is working. He's got the hardware to prove it.
But Durant's legacy also presents interesting and complex arguments not normally reserved for the greatest players of all time, ones that may continue long after he retires.
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