OAKLAND, Calif. — This 2017 Golden State Warriors championship was as much a tribute to LeBron James as it was a triumph over him. The fact that the Warriors needed to add Kevin Durant to the core of a team that won 73 regular-season games and pushed James to the brink of elimination in the 2016 NBA Finals was just as relevant as the compulsion Durant felt to join this team in order to get a ring.
It’s not as simple as “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” When Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder blew a 3-1 lead of their own to the Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference finals, Durant had still won two more games against Stephen Curry than he did against James the first time they squared off in the 2012 NBA Finals. Curry, he could beat. Probably should’ve beat. But they needed to align to defeat James and Kyrie Irving.
“LeBron was the driving force,” a Durant confidant said of his league-changing decision to join the Warriors.
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So Durant made the necessary choice. He left the only franchise he had played for since his rookie season in 2007-08. He endured the ridicule, the questions about his fortitude. He did it all for these moments, several of them really, building all season and throughout the 129-120 victory in Game 5. There was a slight fist pump to the crowd as Curry shot free throws. There were the half-skips, half-gallops after making big shots in the fourth quarter. There was the bend over near midcourt with less than a minute left in the game as he tried to inhale the magnitude of it all, while Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala exhorted him to keep playing and finish it off. (No one is more qualified to speak on the importance of finishing it off than the members of the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors).
Finally, after the confetti fell and the stage was hastily erected on the court and the Warriors and their family members celebrated, did you notice that Durant held the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy up with two hands, for much longer than the quick, one-handed pump of the Bill Russell award for the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player?
The big one was the more meaningful one. The slender Russell award felt like a foregone conclusion two games in, and it was voted unanimously by an 11-member media panel after Durant averaged 35 points, eight rebounds and five assists during the series. Durant outscored James in three of the five games. Durant had a bigger impact, even though James averaged a triple-double in the series. Durant was the story of Game 3, even though James and Irving combined for 77 points, because Durant scored the seven biggest points in crunch time.