The Cavalier game plan was simple in last year’s NBA Finals: close out on a hobbled Stephen Curry and clamp down on a hot Klay Thompson. They would instead leave the series in the hands of Warriors small forward, Harrison Barnes.
And as history will tell you, the plan worked. Barnes would finish the series shooting 35 percent from the floor including 9-of-29 from beyond the 3-point arc. And in the final three games of the series, each Warrior losses, Barnes shot an abysmal 3-for-23 on uncontested jump shots essentially shooting the Warriors out of a championship defense.
This season, Cleveland will find itself in a completely different world. In place of the ice-cold Barnes will be a freshly acquired Kevin Durant. And considering his status as a perennial MVP candidate, the possibilities of a 35-percent performance is less likely to say the least.
When asked if he thinks his presence will change Cleveland’s philosophy on the defensive end of the floor, Durant replied:
“You think so?”
“They’ve stepped it up a level in the playoffs defensively. They’re familiar with this team; the sets; the offense; the players. So, it’s not like there’s going to be a lot of wide open shots out there. But if we move the basketball and move our bodies, I think everybody can find a crack in their defense or some space to let go off. But we have to take care of the basketball, that’s more so what we’re worried about.”
In the two games in which Durant has face the Cavaliers in a Warriors uniform, Durant has averaged 28.5 points per game, including a 36-point performance on Christmas Day. Although that game would end in a Golden State loss after possessing a 14-point fourth-quarter lead, Durant flexed his ability to dominate a game especially when the offensive flow boggs down.
This will be an invaluable skill as that is what typically happens during the later stages of the playoffs: fewer foul calls and a slower pace.
The key to the series may very well be shaped around the question of whether or not Durant can keep these numbers up and maintain his status as an unstoppable offensive force, similar to his dominance during the regular season.
The last time Durant participated in the NBA Finals, in 2012, he ran into a buzzsaw that was the Lebron James-led Miami Heat. And while he was able to average 30.6 points per game, the Thunder faltered, losing to the Heat in 5 games.
This time around, however, Durant will have the luxury of playing next to a two-time MVP in Curry, defensive player of the year candidate Draymond Green and Thompson, perhaps the second best shooter in the league. Talk about an upgrade from a volume shooter in Westbrook and, at the time, an absent bench scorer in James Harden who amassed barley 12 points per game in those Finals.
The question on if Durant will be able to outperform Barnes has a seemingly obvious answer, but whether or not Cleveland will be able to adjust to that has yet to be seen. And if the Cavs try to employ the same philosophy as last year’s Finals, the numbers say that Oakland may be preparing for another parade around Lake Merritt soon.