By:J.A. Adande ESPN Senior Writer
CLEVELAND — Two Cleveland Cavaliers fans stood courtside before Game 3 of the NBA Finals and marveled at the player who had been the star of the series so far, even if he wore a Golden State Warriors uniform.
One turned to the other and asked, “Did you know Durant was this good?”
They could be forgiven if they were unaware. The local fans have never seen Kevin Durant win a game in Cleveland when LeBron James was on the Cavaliers. The last time Durant was in town, on Christmas Day, he missed seven of nine shots in the fourth quarter, and was unable to get a shot off on the Warriors’ last possession.
In addition to the obvious hole in Durant’s résumé, the lack of a championship ring, he had yet to so much as win an NBA Finals road game. He whiffed in three tries in Miami during his first crack at it in 2012. Even Charles Barkley can claim he’s 2-1 on the road in the Finals, including a triple-overtime classic in Chicago in 1993.
And then, just when it looked like the trend — and these NBA Finals — would be extended, when James and Kyrie Irving were about to overcome the whole load of Warriors All-Stars, Durant went strike-through on all of it.
The official play-by-play shows that Durant made a 13-foot jump shot with 1 minute, 15 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter to bring the Warriors within two points.
At the 45-second mark there’s an entry for Durant making a 3-pointer for a 114-113 lead.
Then there are two made free throws with 12 seconds left to make it a 116-113 advantage.
It was the pivotal moment in the Warriors’ 118-113 victory that gave them a 3-0 lead in the series.
The cold facts don’t capture the way Durant silenced a sellout crowd that was tantalized by the possibility of the Cavaliers pulling within a game. They don’t summarize the historic swing in this game, from just another case of home teams holding serve to the Warriors capturing their record-setting 15th consecutive victory in the postseason, on the brink of completing the first 16-0 playoff run in NBA history.
They don’t pay him the tribute that Warriors coach Steve Kerr did.
“He took over,” Kerr marveled. “You can tell he knows this is his moment. He’s been an amazing player in this league for a long time. He senses this is his time, his moment, his team.”
When the buzzer sounded, Durant balled his fists. Curry ran over to congratulate him. If he had the game ball, he would have handed it to him.
It was a fleeting instant, long gone by the time a subdued Durant sat down at the postgame podium.
“I don’t want to relax,” said Durant, who scored 14 of his 31 points in the fourth quarter. “It’s not over. This is a crazy game, anything can happen. I’m just trying to enjoy this moment, try not to look in the future or the past.”
This was as far as the Warriors had been pushed in this series, including the new experience of trailing in the second half. LeBron had another strong start, then Irving worked his wizardry. They combined for 77 points. They also played 46 and 44 minutes, respectively, and missed their last five shots during the final five minutes.
Kerr was convinced that they’d eventually wear down. He also believed enough in his bench and was so pressed to have Curry and Durant fresh at the end that he had both of them sitting at the start of the fourth quarter.
“I believe in our guys,” Kerr said. “I believe in playing a lot of people and I also believe in getting them a little rest. I thought Steph and KD getting those few minutes of rest at the beginning of the quarter, I thought that paid off late. That’s just my personal opinion.”
Whether it’s Kerr’s rotation or Durant’s determination, Durant has been at his best in the fourth quarter, shooting 67 percent and outscoring LeBron 31-11 over the course of the series. This was the first time the game hung in the balance, though. This was Durant tested as he has never been before, and delivering.
“He was their closer tonight, for sure,” Irving said. “Doing what he’s supposed to be doing.”
Klay Thompson said there were no special plays for Durant or spoken instructions, just a consensus determination to “Get that man the rock.”
Thompson had every right to hunt for shots himself after scoring 16 points in the first quarter to avoid the slow starts that have plagued the Warriors in previous Game 3s here and finishing with 30. But his mentality reflects the Warriors’ ways.
“We got an unselfish team who just wants to win,” Thompson said. “They don’t care who gets the stats or the accolades.”
Thompson, Curry and Durant all got the stats. Durant got the accolades … along with his first Finals road victory.
He snatched the opportunity. Now the ring is within his reach.