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Three takeaways from Warriors-Cavs Game 3: Kevin Durant is the perfect weapon

Three takeaways from the Golden State Warriors’ 110-102 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 3 of the 2018 NBA Finals, to take a commanding 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven series:

Kevin Durant is a freaking assassin

CLEVELAND — After bouncing back from an inefficient Game 1 with a sterling Game 2 performance during which he made his biggest impact with his rebounding and complementary playmaking, I found myself wondering if maybe that was the ideal role for Kevin Durant: as a supersized, Hall of Fame-caliber second banana.

We all know how dominant Golden State looks when Stephen Curry’s on the ball, running the show in the screen-and-roll and using the lion’s share of possessions. So maybe Durant’s optimal function would be working in the flow of the offense as needed while also unlocking his other prodigious gifts — on the glass, as a passer, as a help defender, rim protector and general all-around 7-foot menace. Maybe, counterintuitive as it might seem, the best way to use a four-time scoring champion and league MVP would be as a release valve — an in-case-of-emergency-break-glass option.

And then Durant stepped onto the court at Quicken Loans Arena and promptly reminded me and anyone else who might’ve doubted that, no matter how vital, central and magical Curry can be, KD is nobody’s sidekick.

Kevin Durant smiles like a man who knows there’s not a single dude in the other jerseys who can guard him. (Getty)

Durant was unstoppable on Wednesday night, an eye-popping, head-shake-inducing revelation. He roasted every Cavalier defender in his path, reducing them all — J.R. Smith, Jeff Green, Rodney Hood, George Hill, Larry Nance Jr., LeBron James, every last one of them — to smoldering rubble.

The result: a career playoff high 43 points — and man, doesn’t that seem downright low for a scorer this supreme? — on 15-for-23 shooting, including a 6-for-9 mark from 3-point range and a perfect 7-for-7 night at the free-throw line.

KD reached deep into his bag on Wednesday, deploying an arsenal of hesitations, crossovers, and head and shoulder fakes to get to his preferred spots at his preferred pace. He faced up on the wing, posted up on the block and at the nail, isolated at the top of the key and crushed the Cavs from every spot, whether going all the way to the rim or pulling up for silky smooth jumpers.

“Some of those shots, I don’t think anybody in the world can hit those but him,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the game. “He was incredible … I just like the way he’s attacking. He’s not waiting around. He’s attacking right away on the catch, and it’s devastating to have to guard that.”

Durant poured in 13 points in the first quarter and 24 before halftime, buoying the Warriors as Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson struggled mightily to find room and rhythm against a Cleveland defense determined to smother them. He kept Golden State within striking distance in the first half, and with the game in the balance, he struck, snatching the heart out of Cleveland’s still-beating chest with 49.8 seconds remaining:

“It was almost like I was cussing him out, but I was so happy,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said of his emotional response to Durant’s monster 3-pointer. “I was, like, yelling the wrong thing. But that was a huge shot […] like, he took that from about 38 feet out. Just to put a dagger in them like that, that was a huge shot.”

As was the case in Game 2, Durant made his presence felt beyond just putting the ball through the basket, too:

Durant finished with a team-high 13 rebounds, trailed only Green with seven assists against three turnovers. Two of those dimes came in the final 6:05 of the game, setting up the returning Andre Iguodala for a layup and a thunderous dunk to take advantage of the Cavs’ faulty interior defense.

He also played an integral role as a help defender, passing-lane interruptor and shot-altering presence for the Warriors, who climbed out of an early 13-point hole to take control of the game by limiting Cleveland to 44 points on 35.9 percent shooting in the second half.

And then, there was the dagger … which, coming in the final minute of a Game 3 at the Q, looked awfully familiar.

It wasn’t an exact match, though. Ask a guy who’d know.

“No, that wasn’t the same shot,” said James, who turned in his 10th career NBA Finals triple-double with 33 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds, two steals and two blocks while taking all of 68 seconds of rest. “The one he made tonight was about four or five feet behind the one he made last year. Last year, we were up two, and he pulled up pretty much right at the 3-point line and got a great contest, but he made it. Tonight, they’re up three. They come off a pick-and-roll and he just stopped behind and pulled four or five feet behind the 3-point line. So same wing, different location.

“But you definitely tip your hat. I mean, that’s what he does,” James added. “He’s a scorer. You know, he’s an assassin, and that was one of those assassin plays right there.”

That assassin play, coming at the end of what might go down as the greatest game of his illustrious career, might have snuffed out more than the Cavs’ chances of taking Game 3. It may well have ended this series and, perhaps, this era of both LeBron’s career and Cavaliers basketball. It was a hell of a shot that could have a hell of an impact, and a hell of a reminder that when it comes to offensive weapons, there haven’t been many ever made more utterly devastating than the one who wears No. 35.

Physicality was the Cavs’ answer, but it couldn’t last

Coming off a Game 2 in which his team allowed 122 points on 57.3 percent shooting with 20 makes directly at the basket and 15 from behind the 3-point arc, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue entered Wednesday’s Game 3 preaching to his team the gospel of physicality.

“One through five, we’ve got to be more physical,” Lue said during his pre-game press conference. “We know they’re trying to slip screens in Game 2, so we’re on bodies and we’re physical. That takes away the slips, and they’ll slip it right into your body. So we’ve got to be physical.”

In the early going, it worked. Cleveland opened the game with LeBron-George Hill pick-and-rolls, aiming to trigger switches that would force Curry to guard James early and often, and force Golden State to reckon with how much help they wanted to give their point guard against his battering-ram fellow MVP. The approach resulted in kickouts and swing passes for consecutive open corner 3s to open the game, helping the Cavs get off to the fast start — a 16-4 lead 4 1/2 minutes into the game — that they so desperately needed.

The Cavaliers worked to trap Stephen Curry on the ball, to jostle him off it, and to generally fluster the Warriors with their physicality. It worked for a while … and then it stopped. (Getty)

The Cavaliers did everything they could to get the Warriors uncomfortable. They drilled Curry everywhere he went off the ball, and ran the floor in transition to try to seal him in the paint for early-offense post touches, drawing two fouls on him before the midpoint of the opening period. They made a concerted effort to pick up Golden State’s ball-handlers high up the court, forcing them to expend energy as they brought the ball up the floor, and worked hard to push the Warriors off their spots in the half-court, to play physical positional defense on the catch to take away the room to slip screens, and to contest everything. They again flexed their muscles on the glass, rebounding four of their first 10 misses as they built the lead and pulverizing Golden State on the interior; the Cavs had nearly as many offensive rebounds (five) as the Warriors did total rebounds (seven) in the first quarter.

Cleveland had the Splash Brothers in a drought, Draymond on tilt with three personal fouls and a technical before halftime, and the Warriors at a loss as to how to deal with the combination of James’ marauding to the rim and Love making a difference inside (beasting in the post and on the boards) and out (knocking down three of his first five 3-pointers) to stake the Cavs to a 50-37 lead with four minutes to go in the first half. J.R. had 10 points and a pair of steals. Hood had returned from rotational purgatory to score a basket and block a couple of shots. Tristan Thompson had gotten under Draymond’s skin.

The Warriors might have folded … had Durant not been there with nine points in the final four minutes, including a 34-foot bomb with less than one second remaining to get Golden State within six at halftime. (“It wasn’t just the number of points” Durant scored, Kerr said. “It seemed like every time we needed a bucket, he got it for us.”) Instead, they stayed close, and after halftime, all that physicality and defensive intensity just completely dissipated.

Golden State rung up 30 points in the paint in the second half, making 70 percent (14-for-20) of their shots at the rim, often without a rim protector in the neighborhood to make a cutting Warrior think twice or pay a toll:

Time and again, as the Cavs tried to extend their defense out to run the Warriors off the line and keep Curry and Thompson from getting loose, they lost their men along the baseline on back-cuts. Time and again, the switching problems that plagued Cleveland in Game 2 — not quick enough to make the assignment hand-off, as a Golden State screener slipped rather than setting a solid pick, darting toward the rim between two step-slow defenders — left a Warrior running free to the basket.

“They did a good job of trying to take away our three, but I thought we did an even better job of executing and getting the ball to our roll men,” Klay Thompson said after the game. “Getting in the paint and making plays.”

JaVale McGee and Jordan Bell rolled for layups and lob finishes. Draymond rumbled into the lane for dunks, including an emphatic finish following Durant’s dagger that was like adding another exclamation point just in case the reader didn’t get the message of the first one. Iguodala and Shaun Livingston stayed a step ahead of their defenders, using speed and savvy to demoralize Cleveland with smart ball and player movement that generated great look after great look.

Combine all those point-blank attempts with Durant’s all-court brilliance and some much-better-late-than-never shot-making by Curry — who finished 3-for-16 from the field and 1-for-9 from long distance, but scored seven of his 11 points in the final three minutes, and nailed a huge 3 that put Golden State up 101-97 with 2:38 to go — and the Warriors scored 58 points on 60 percent shooting after halftime, torching the Cavs to the tune of a ludicrous 129.9 points per 100 possessions.

The Cavs couldn’t withstand that. Nobody could.

“We know that we’re capable,” said Love, who scored 20 points (6-for-13 shooting, 3-for-7 from deep, 5-for-5 from the line) to go with 13 rebounds, three assists and a steal in 31 minutes. “We just made some mistakes.”

Against this opponent, though, you can’t afford to make mistakes.

“They’re not going to beat themselves,” James said after the game, in which Golden State committed just 11 turnovers to Cleveland’s 14. (The Warriors are now 11-1 in this postseason when they commit fewer than 15 turnovers.) “You know, so when you’re able to either force a miscue on them, you have to be able to capitalize, and you have to be so in tuned and razor-sharp and focused every single possession. You can’t have miscommunication. You can’t have flaws. You can’t have ‘my faults’ or ‘my bads’ or things like that, because they’re going to make you pay. When they make you pay, it’s a 3-0 or 6-0 or 9-0 run, and it comes in bunches. The room for error … you just can’t have it.”

The only drama left is how little drama there’ll be

After coming from behind to draw within one win of their third NBA championship in four seasons, Klay Thompson noted that the Warriors couldn’t just assume that they’ll finish the job on Friday. After all, it didn’t work out that way last year.

“We’ve got a good memory,” said Thompson, who We know what happened last year when we went up 3-0. They came out and set records. We have to keep that in the back of our minds and stay hungry.”

That’s admirable, Klay, but whereas last year’s Cavs were an offensive juggernaut capable of producing absurd, stuff-of-high-fantasy offensive performances — 49 points in the first quarter of 2017’s Game 4, 86 in the half, an NBA Finals record 24 3-pointers — this year’s team just doesn’t have that kind of firepower. It doesn’t have Kyrie Irving. It doesn’t have a version of J.R. that you’d rely on hitting five 3s in a do-or-die game. It doesn’t have the same kind of collective playmaking energy and talent, the same sort of spacing and creativity, the same level of dynamism and verve.

It does have LeBron, and it does have Love. But even with Love performing up to his All-Star standards as a supplementary scorer and on the boards, and even with James putting up obscene numbers — he is now averaging 37.7 points, 10.7 assists and nine rebounds in 46.1 minutes per game in these Finals, shooting 52.5 percent from the field — the Cavs are still on the brink of a sweep.

The Warriors, on the other hand? They can suffer the worst shooting game of Curry’s postseason career, get 10 points on 11 shots from Thompson, and still score at an elite level thanks to the presence of Durant and just how much their stars open everything up for complementary players like centers McGee and Bell (20 combined points on 9-for-12 shooting) or veteran ball-handlers Iguodala and Livingston (16 total points on 7-for-9 shooting).

“We gave ourselves a chance, same thing in Game 1,” Love said. “They just — like I said, that margin for error is so thin and so little against them that, in some cases, you almost have to be perfect.”

For the Warriors, the process is much less stressful.

“It’s that simple,” Thompson said. “Find the open man, and we’re impossible to beat.”

If they can keep finding the open man on Friday, the most interesting questions left to answer might be which Warrior hoists the Finals MVP trophy as the 2017-18 NBA season comes to an end by Saturday morning.

– – – – – – –

Dan Devine is a writer and editor for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoosports.com or follow him on Twitter!

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