OAKLAND, Calif. — The worst place to be in basketball is between LeBron James and the hoop on a fast break. Over the past month, Kevin Durant has unwittingly found himself in the second-worst place: Stuck between Stephen Curry and an adoring Warriors fan base worried that its homegrown two-time MVP was being marginalized.
When Golden State faced a 3-2 deficit to Houston in the Western Conference finals, it was natural to wonder why Curry’s success and Durant’s success suddenly seemed mutually exclusive. After all, their shared respect had served as the foundation of Golden State’s blossoming dynasty. In 2016, they both concluded that they would be better off challenging LeBron James together, even if it meant sharing the spotlight. In 2017, they teamed up brilliantly to lay waste to the entire league during a commanding 16-1 postseason run.
But that fairytale partnership veered towards reality-show drama during the Houston series, when Curry and Durant appeared out of sync, like oarsmen pulling on different beats. While they pointed fingers at each other following defensive miscommunications, the most glaring issues came on the offensive end as the Warriors force-fed Durant at Curry’s expense. Even when both played well down the stretch of a dramatic Game 7 in Houston, it seemed like they had merely suppressed their newfound balance issues. Their collective shot-making ability had delivered a hard-fought series win, but it still felt like regression compared to last year’s easy-breezy championship chase.
For the first time in months, Curry and Durant functioned in terrifying lockstep on Sunday, delivering a 122-103 blowout win against the Cavaliers in Game 2 of the Finals. The Warriors are now two victories away from defending their title, and they appear to have put the worst of the emerging Curry/Durant tug-of-war behind them.
Durant made good on numerous pre-game vows, finishing with 26 points (on just 14 shots), nine rebounds and seven assists. He played exceptional defense on James, fighting through screens and extending his one-on-one assignments out to near midcourt. He locked into his rebounding duties, helping to cut down sharply on Cleveland’s second-chance opportunities. He attacked with purpose off the dribble time and again, leading to easy looks at the rim, open passing lanes, and in-rhythm shots in isolation. He was ever-present, without hijacking.
“Kevin is going to probably have 26 points whether he plays well or not,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “That’s how talented he is. He’s always going to score. It’s not about scoring, it’s about the defensive intensity, it’s about his work on the glass. I thought he set a really good tone for us with his defense early in the game.”
The steady drumbeat of Durant’s forays softened up Cleveland for Curry’s second-half knockout. Entering the fourth quarter, Curry had 17 points on 6-of-18 shooting. By the end of the night, he tallied a game-high 33 points and an NBA Finals-record nine three-pointers. During an eight-minute span in the final period, Curry delivered one of the most back-breaking shot-making sequences of his career, drilling five three-pointers, including one that turned into a four-point play.
“That’s a pretty cool deal to accomplish,” Curry said, after surpassing Ray Allen’s previous single-game mark of eight three-pointers, set in 2010. “I never woke up and was like, ‘Alright, let’s go get nine threes and get the record.’ It was more about playing the game the right way, having good intentions out there on the court and [then] good things happen.”
Some of Curry’s triples were ludicrous even by his own standard, none more so than the 28-footer he swished in over Kevin Love to beat the shot clock. After briefly losing his handle while executing a series of crossover dribbles, Curry retrieved the ball and launched a heave in a single step-back motion, causing the Oracle crowd to gasp and then erupt in cheers.
“I fumbled the ball and tried to see where the defense was,” Curry said. “And Kevin Love was right on me. I actually lost the dribble for a hot second, and the only way to get a shot was to keep going back. I try all sorts of shots at some point or another, but at that point it’s just feel and letting it go, and thankfully it went in.”
Love could only tip his hat to the “moon ball,” while Warriors guard Klay Thompson chuckled and marveled at the shot. “He just kept going backwards,” Thompson said. “I don’t know why. But he just threw it up and I didn’t think it had any chance of going in. That was like a dagger shot and it gave us all the momentum back. That was my favorite. It hit nothing but net.”
As Cleveland’s defense did its best to shuffle and lunge in hopes of interrupting the onslaught, Curry countered with a perfectly-timed dime for a Durant dunk near the five-minute mark. The pass felt like a thank-you note to his teammate and a goodbye wave to the Cavaliers rolled into one. A minute later, with the Cavaliers down 18, Tyronn Lue emptied his bench.
This was, finally, the return of the pure havoc that Curry and Durant should wreak together. Leave Durant one-on-one, and he pumps in turnarounds against George Hill and zips past Kyle Korver. Lose track of Curry in the corner, and he blows open a close game in the blink of an eye. Devote extra attention to smother Curry, and he makes the right pass to Durant. Two synchronized MVPs should always be one step ahead.
Curry and Durant shared an enthusiastic hug when they checked out, and the debates that raged during their struggles against the Rockets seemed like a distant memory. Durant’s ball-stopping and overthinking had been replaced by quicker, more assertive decisions. Meanwhile, Curry’s cold spells had given way to greater consistency, and he was back on centerstage.
In an ironic twist, Love told reporters that Durant was the real driving force on Curry’s record-setting night. “They’re very tough to stop when [Durant is] hitting shots,” Love said. “A lot of people are going to talk about Steph’s game and Klay having 20 [points], but I thought KD was the guy that really had it going tonight for them and was the difference-maker.”
Love’s statement served as a reminder that the Curry/Durant partnership—this pair of phenomenal shooters, soft-spoken workaholics, committed defenders, unselfish leaders—should represent Golden State’s greatest strength, rather than the organization’s biggest potential fault line. There will always be plenty of credit to go around if Curry and Durant strike the right balance.
The reeling Cavaliers are therefore left to ponder this painful truth: When the Warriors are clicking properly, Curry versus Durant looks less like a debate and more like a false dichotomy.