HOUSTON — Kevin Durant waited for the ball to come his way and it never reached his outstretched hand. James Harden knew where Draymond Green wanted to go with the ball, jumped the pass, knocked the ball ahead and scooped it up for an emphatic, one-handed jam that put the Houston Rockets up 15 points in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals Monday night. Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr called time, and while Harden celebrated in an odd fashion, grabbing his nose as if it were bleeding, Green was scolding Durant as a parent would a disobedient child.
Green needed Durant to come to the ball — urgently, decisively — like he wanted it and not like he expected it to get there. The Warriors’ season was again in danger of ending prematurely, against a Rockets team that wasn’t ready to use the absence of Chris Paul as an excuse for not fulfilling its purpose as Golden State killers. And here the Warriors were, here Durant was, chilling and lacking the passion needed to grab ahold of what was in front of them.
Stephen Curry acknowledged that “in that moment, it could’ve splintered” for a team unaccustomed to back-to-the-wall adversity in the Durant era. Green snapped, Durant snapped back and the much-needed, heated exchange turned “a little rough patch” — as Curry called it — into an awakening. And before the night was over, the Warriors were passing around and posing with the silver ball perched atop the hardest earned conference championship trophy of this unprecedented four-year run for the franchise, following a 101-92 victory at Toyota Center.
“It’s just another step, another step in your journey that I can pinpoint, once I’m done playing and say, ‘Well, I went through this, too,’ ” Durant told Yahoo Sports as he exited the arena after scoring a game-high 34 points. “When I’m talking to a younger player or — who knows? — if I’m coaching in a couple years, 10 to 12 years from now, I’ll have an opportunity to look back and say, ‘The second year I was with the Warriors, we tried to get to a back-to-back championship, going Game 7 in the Western Conference and we won on the road.’ I can say that now. And give back my experience to someone else. It was cool to see us figure it out as a team and break through as a team.”
Durant had the most to lose if the Warriors had been unable to break through against the undermanned Rockets. He was brought to Golden State to make the franchise untouchable for however long it took to capture enough championship trophies to be deemed a dynasty. The Rockets weren’t trying to play along with that plan and devised a scheme that flustered the Warriors and especially Durant, whose mood shifted from cocky to confused to petulant to miserable as the series progressed. And while Durant had played in three other Game 7’s before Monday, never had the expectations been higher and the potential for an unyielding, scathing summer of criticism been greater had his team failed to reach the NBA Finals, let alone repeat as champions.
During his time in Oakland, Durant had been peppered with complaints that he had ruined the league’s competitive balance, complaints that were easy for him to ignore with a championship ring in hand and the potential for more within reason. But as the Warriors struggled and lost their identity against these Rockets, Durant had to hear how he had broken the team by bringing those hero-ball isolations with him from Oklahoma City and made the organization that embodied fun, less so. All of this less than a year after he had outplayed LeBron James, won Finals MVP and helped bring the second championship in three years to town. With four in-their-prime all-stars, including two regular-season MVPs, the Warriors have an abundance of riches that makes their success seem inevitable and easy.
“It’s not,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “All-Stars don’t matter, accomplishments don’t matter. It’s about how you play on the court. That’s what separates us from the good teams in the league, is no matter the talent you’ve got, you’ve still got to play every night. That’s why we never come in like, ‘We’re invincible.’ Because teams are getting better, players are good. The schemes, the way the game is taught different. We can’t walk into many games feeling that we’re entitled or that we’re supposed to win. You’ve got to knuckle down and play. This series showed that.”
Kerr said the Warriors won because “our talent took over,” and Curry, Durant and Klay Thompson certainly took turns hitting crowd-silencing, soul-crushing jumpers. The game actually played out in a fashion similar to how Golden State became the league’s most enviable team. Curry had one of those flurries that make the opposition contemplate why it even bothered to pick up a basketball, then Durant provided the finishing touches with the precision of a sniper. Kerr has had to find a way to manage and massage the egos of players who — other than Durant — may not have been drafted to become rock stars but have emerged as such during this run. The challenge of appeasing so much talent becomes more complicated when the team is tested and the game plan is questioned. But sometimes, overcoming a challenge comes down to desire. Green confronted Durant about being too passive, something he’s done with early-morning text messages or enraged on-court rants.
“One thing about Draymond, he knows that I like that type of stuff. He’s knows that it gets me going,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “And he doesn’t use it all the time. He only uses it when he really needs it. I grew up with coaches walking on the court, dragging me off by jersey, taking me to the sideline because I wasn’t playing well. Or coming home, my mom was like, ‘What the [expletive] was that?’ Excuse my language. I always had somebody on top of me. Now to have somebody who understands that in the NBA, somebody who can challenge me a little bit. It’s only going to make me a better. We go back and forth, it’s only for the betterment of the team. It makes us both lock back in.”
The Warriors are now set for a Finals four-match with James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, a reunion that appeared to be in doubt a few times this postseason. James has used the failure of that gentleman’s sweep last year as fuel for a mind-boggling 15th campaign. Durant will have stay physically and mentally engaged against James once again, but scoffed at the notion that James’ performance in closing out Boston to reach his eight straight Finals was somehow unique. “I think it’s disrespectful to LeBron, like that last game was his defining moment? No. That was a huge moment, but I’ve seen him have better games. That tells you how good he is,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “So I got nothing but respect, nothing but love and respect and competitiveness. You know he’s somebody who I’ve been through the trenches a bit, working out and playing with Team USA. You gain that respect and the level goes up another notch because you know the tendencies. You know how hard this guy works and you know how much he loves and enjoys the game, and he knows the same about you. Once that clashes, you just breed better basketball players. Just bringing excitement to the game and it’s fun to be a part of it.
“I’m just so happy I get to play again in the Finals,” Durant told Yahoo Sports. “To go through a Game 7 on the road, to go through that with these guys for the first time, all our first time doing this, it brought us closer as a group and it’s a series that we’ll probably never forget as we get older.”