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Kevin Durant and the Dagger That Foreshadowed the Broom

John W. McDonough/SI

“You have a chance to demolish them, to take their heart. It’s like my drug.” The Warriors saw a new, edgier KD this year, but the Finals MVP was wearing a familiar smile after a second straight title that came thanks to a second straight Game 3 dagger.

The home of an NBA champion 48 hours after the Finals looks sort of like a honeymoon suite the morning after a wedding: balloons at the door, nachos in the kitchen, friends on the couch, rehashing the previous night’s activities. Kevin Durant’s commemorative hat was already in the closet, next to his Longhorns’ and Redskins’ lids, and his MVP trophy perched on the windowsill along with its predecessor. “Reminds me of when I was a kid,” Durant said. “My brother and I would line up all our fifth-place trophies from the rec league on the dresser and see who could stack the most.”

He sat atop the kitchen counter, corn on the cob sizzling in a frying pan, late-afternoon sun pouring through floor-to-ceiling windows. Across the Bay, he could see almost to Oracle Arena. Durant lived in the Oakland Hills last season, but he found the location desolate, so he moved to an apartment on the 54th floor of a high-rise in downtown San Francisco. At rush hour, it can take him 35 minutes just to merge onto the bridge, but he appreciates the view and the bustle. Plus, he is well positioned for when the Warriors open their new hardwood palace in Mission Bay next year. 

He was still in his sweats, to the consternation of stylist Nchimunya Wulf, who has tried to coax him into more formal attire for a couple of months now. Most players of Durant’s ilk arrange elaborate postseason ensembles weeks in advance, but KD broke from peacock protocol this spring, rocking a procession of Nike hoodies instead of short suits. “I thought I did something wrong,” Wulf said.

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“No,” Durant laughed. “I sometimes stress about what I’m going to wear for the walk-in. I can’t worry about it.”

He admits things like that, things other megastars do not: “I feel as if a lot of basketball players, celebrities, put on this front that they’re bigger and stronger and different—that they’re superheroes—so they’re not seen as somebody with weaknesses or insecurities. I’m not a celebrity hooper. I don’t care about money and fame. I don’t need everything to revolve around me. I like to play basketball. I like to talk basketball. I like to debate basketball.”

He is a repeat champion and Finals MVP, but all that will be remembered of Durant’s second season in Golden State is Game 3 at Quicken Loans Arena: 43 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists and one 33-foot kill shot from his customary station to the left of the top of the circle. “If I took 16 of those points and gave them to Steph and Klay, that would have been fine, too,” Durant insists. He is loath to glorify his scoring—“That’s all I did my whole life”—but there is no denying the uncanny affection he has developed for Game 3s since joining the Warriors, who typically lead 2–0 when they take to the road.

- John W. McDonough/SI
John W. McDonough/SI

“Everybody on the other side is excited, everybody is looking for that extra emotion,” Durant starts, describing a hypothetical showdown. “They’re thinking, ‘I need it from the crowd. I need it from knowing that I slept in my bed last night, that my family is here, that I did my usual routine.’ But then you hit an early three, and you get up 29–26 going into the second quarter, and they’re like, ‘Damn, I’m a little nervous now.’ And then you go up seven in the third, and they’re like, ‘S---, this isn’t what we planned.’ They make a layup, and get so hyped, but you come down and score again. You have a chance to demolish them, to take their heart. It’s like my drug. I love Game 3.”

A year ago, he earned his fix with 38 and 13 in Game 3 at Utah, 33 and 10 at San Antonio, 31 and 9 at Cleveland. After each of those epics, the Warriors lost only once, so the prognosis for these Cavaliers was predictable. The dagger foreshadows the broom. “I felt like I was at Barry Farms again,” Durant told his business partner and agent, Rich Kleiman, following his latest Game 3 spree. Barry Farms, the famed outdoor courts in Washington D.C., represent the hoops haven Durant is forever trying to re-create.

"It’s how we all start, isn’t it?” he asks. “Pickup is the heartbeat of basketball, the spirit of basketball, and as you get further and further away from that, to AAU to high school to college to the NBA, you’re stacking layers and layers of nonsense onto something simple. You get money involved—and here I am living in this penthouse in San Francisco—but if you can take it all the way back to streetball then nothing will really bother you. Just tie up your shoes and play.”

He tries to insulate himself from the nonsense, as he terms it, which is a daily struggle. “The entitlement,” the 29-year-old explains, “the idea that I scored 30 so you should let me in this club for free.” But also the criticism, some of which predates his move to Golden State, and sticks with him still. “This is a wild life, a crazy lifestyle, and I’m not saying I have it all figured out. But I do know it can affect me if I let it, so I have to do my best to control it.” 

Listening to Durant is not so different than watching him post up George Hill. Once he gets going, he does not stop. “I have so much in my head, it’s hard for me to say it all. I know what I’m thinking, but it comes out a little weird and different.” Not really. You just have to know him. Last season, he yearned to fit in with the Dubs. This season, he revealed more of himself, and coaches privately wondered if he was unhappy. “They saw my edge for the first time,” Durant says. “I go, ‘What the f--- are we doing?’ and they go, ‘Whoa, we didn’t know you were like that.’ Well, I grew up in a s--- talking household, insults thrown across the room from uncles to aunts to cousins to brothers. That’s how I do it.” He can be simultaneously fiery and gentle. Toward the end of the regular season, teammates noticed he turned quiet, his passion muted. “I wasn’t good every day,” he says. “I wasn’t on every day. I felt like we were dragging, and I was down, too. I internalized it a little bit. I wanted some meaningful basketball.” Coach Steve Kerr, generally demanding of Durant, adjusted his approach. “You try to give him space at those times, but also lift him up,” forward Shaun Livingston says. “It’s challenging because you never know what he’s going through, a guy like that who is so visible.”

Durant’s mood lightened as the playoffs dawned. He watched a Bob Marley documentary. He grabbed burritos and beers after practice at Tamarindo in Old Oakland. He beamed when Kerr deployed him in oddball lineups. “He’s one of the most authentic people I’ve ever met,” says Warriors general manager Bob Myers, “because if he’s having a hard time, he’ll tell you, ‘I’m having a hard time,’ and if he’s feeling great he’ll tell you, ‘I’m feeling great.’ You can connect with someone like that because he wears all of it. He wants so badly to be part of everything, and you have to tell him, ‘You are. You are.’ We lost when we didn’t have Kevin Durant. We won when we did.”

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His first game of the Finals was, by his own admission, a dud. “I disrespected Cleveland,” Durant volunteers. “I didn’t come in prepared. I didn’t pressure LeBron. I was shooting long jumpers and wasn’t getting to my spots.” The next three, however, were a masterpiece. The Warriors will replay those 15-foot turnarounds over Hill for posterity.

After the inevitable sweep, Steph Curry charged through the Q with a bucket of popcorn under his arm and a cigar behind his ear. Klay Thompson gave a champagne shower to the ball boys. And Margot Kerr, Steve’s wife, was summoned for her annual picture with the Larry O’Brien Trophy. “Oh, Larry,” she said. “I know him well.” On the way, she stopped at the sight of Golden State’s 6'11" center Zaza Pachulia lifting PR ace Raymond Ridder into the air. “Nothing easy!” Pachulia bellowed, parroting a war cry he coined with the Hawks a decade ago. 

Not only have the Warriors captured three of the past four titles, they have posted the best regular and postseason winning percentages over a four-year span in NBA history. They finished these playoffs with the top-ranked offense and defense. They inspired legitimate complaints that the Finals are a formality and have been since July 4, 2016, when Durant migrated west. So was it easy? By any normal standard, yes, it was another eight-month joyride. But the Dubs are spoiled, and for them it was a slog, overcoming their most formidable adversary: themselves. 

"Sometimes, you have to wait on a championship team.”

Chuck Daly said that, about his 1980s Bad Boys, wisdom that provided solace for Kerr as he checked his watch through an interminable winter. During three dream seasons, the Warriors started 21–2, 24–0 and 27–4, immune to the malaise that infects virtually every NBA power. The Dubs destroyed opponents, whether from San Antonio or Sacramento, less for seed than for sport. They were the most talented team in the league but also the most driven, and while Kerr snapped a few clipboards along the way, he rarely so much as raised his voice in a film session. He didn’t have to. His players earned the freedom he afforded them, and kept earning it. 

“First year, it’s all new, we’re all hungry,” Livingston says. “Second year, we’re chasing history, trying to get the best record ever. Third year, we just lost in the Finals, and we’ve got KD. This year, what is it?” Golden State’s roster is loaded but its system is taxing, constant cuts and reads. When effort wanes, so does movement, and clean threes become contested twos. “It’s harder to keep the spirit, to find the joy,” Livingston continues. “And then you see it every night on the other side, with the Houstons but even the Brooklyns, because they want so badly to knock you off.”

Kerr stressed patience to the coaching staff, but heeding his own message proved difficult. When he excoriated the Warriors, most memorably after a 20-point loss at Indiana in April, they didn’t respond. They weren’t accustomed to the iron fist. “Sure, this sucks,” Myers told Kerr in Indy. “But who are we to challenge the character of our players after everything they’ve done in the past three years? They’ve given us no reason not to trust them.” Kerr backed off, apologized to the team, told them to regroup for the playoffs. Then they lost by 40 at Utah five days later in the season finale. “That was the moment I worried,” says assistant coach Bruce Fraser. Concern being relative, they still racked up 58 wins. “Yeah, but we jacked around,” says another assistant. “Our superstars played more like All-Stars.”

Early in the playoffs, Myers called Heat president Pat Riley, a veteran of dynasties on both coasts. “Give me some advice,” Myers said. He expected memories about motivating Magic, prodding D-Wade. “You cannot force people to do anything,” Riley replied. “You cannot move them in a direction. You have to let them be.” They kept waiting. Myers reflected on the final installments of the Kobe-Shaq Lakers, the LeBron-Wade Heat. “It always ends differently than you think,” he says.

The 2018 Warriors reminded Kerr of the 1998 Bulls, Scottie Pippen pedaling furiously on a stationary bike in the hallway of the Delta Center during Game 6 of the Finals, desperate to loosen his back. “LeBron—sorry, Freudian slip—Michael had to do everything that night,” Kerr recalls. “We felt vulnerable, whereas the previous two years we didn’t. It was the same way this season. We felt vulnerable against Houston.”

The Rockets’ remade defense was longer, faster and more versatile than past incarnations. They crowded Curry and Durant 30 feet from the basket, funneling them toward the rim and inviting them to finish over 6'10" flyswatter Clint Capela. Tested for the first time in two years, the Warriors resorted to uncharacteristic isolations, abandoning their egalitarian offense. Golden State needed another facilitator, but Andre Iguodala was out with an injured left leg. Midway through Game 5, the Warriors moved a big man—Kevon Looney or Jordan Bell—to the three-point line even though neither shoots well enough to draw a defender outside. “Doesn’t seem logical, does it?” Fraser asks. The Dubs lost Game 5, but at practice in Oakland before Game 6, they ran through reads with Looney and Bell as playmakers on the perimeter. Neither possesses the ballhandling skills to drive and kick, but both can throw a quick pass or execute a dribble handoff. “Our pass total was low, our shot rhythm was off,” Fraser continues. “We weren’t moving enough, weren’t cutting enough. We had to crack the code.” Shifting Looney and Bell did not alter Houston’s defensive strategy. “No,” Fraser says. “But it unlocked our movement and it unlocked a lot of the stuff that gets Steph going.”

Curry could bring the ball up, find Looney or Bell, and then relocate to the corner. This pass-and-dash action became a hallmark three years ago during the Western Conference semifinals against Memphis, with Iguodala and Draymond Green shoveling to Curry while screening for him. The Dubs don’t have a play call for the pass-and-dash. Rather, it is a by-product of their flow, and a sign of their engagement.

Before Game 6, Kerr told the Warriors they would not lose again this season, though a hamstring injury to Chris Paul and a brain lock by J.R. Smith helped his prophesy come to fruition. Golden State escaped Game 1 of the Finals, winning in overtime when Smith forgot the score in regulation, and afterward Curry broke down video with his dad. “We don’t do that a lot,” Dell Curry says. “But you could see that he had some more opportunities in transition. He’s a pass-first guy, but sometimes he has to be aggressive.” Since the outset of last season, Curry has cut down on his circus shots, in part to ingratiate Durant. But the Warriors and their fans feed off those 30-foot moonbeams, low percentage for anybody but Steph. On the way to Game 2, Dell told a friend, “I’ve never been more confident.”

His son drilled a Finals-record nine threes, including a pass-and-dash late in the fourth quarter, with Kevin Love crashing into him. Oracle erupted as if it were 2015 again. Here was a flashback to the days before Durant, when Curry was everybody’s underdog, and each step-back was a spectacle. Both co-stars have suppressed skills, part of the superteam compromise, but in the Finals they took turns letting loose. When Curry finally cooled off, he met his family in a corner of Oracle’s BMW Club, greeted by an MVP chant.

The wait was over. The champs had arrived.

The difference between the ’18 Warriors and the ’98 Bulls, which Kerr did not mention, is that Chicago was at the end of its reign while Golden State likely remains in the middle. Some coaches questioned this spring whether Durant would re-sign, but that now appears a given. They also wondered about Kerr, still enduring severe headaches as a result of a botched back surgery. For three years, players have seen Kerr lean against the scorer’s table at timeouts, dreading the day he flies home to San Diego for good. But he bought a house last month in San Francisco’s Presidio Heights, a couple blocks from Myers and Gregg Popovich, which the staff took as a signal he isn’t going anywhere either. 

“All good things come to an end,” Green says, “but I don’t think the end is near.” NBA headliners want to win. They also want to win on their terms. After James and Wade united in Miami, Wade ceded the front seat. With Curry and Durant, no such bargain has been struck, nor has one been necessary. When Curry tells Durant, “Stop following me!” as he did between Finals press conferences, they both laughed. “What we have here is so unique,” Green says, “and what makes it work is selflessness. We don’t look at it as, ‘KD, you the face, you the guy.’ Or, ‘Steph, you the face, you the guy.’ There ain’t no guy.”

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It is Green’s job, apart from all-league defense, to keep this delicate ecosystem intact. “You see a lot of bands break up, and when you look back on why, it started with something so small,” Green begins. “Like maybe one band member used the other band member’s hairdresser, and it wasn’t a big deal, but nobody nipped it in the bud. So that’s one little something, and then there’s a second little something, and a third, and before you know it, all those little somethings add up to a big something. I try to see it all, but I can’t. So if something slips by me, Bob will say, ‘You need to watch this,’ or Steve will say, ‘You need to watch this.’ I’m like, ‘Oh s---, I missed that. O.K., I’m on it.’”

Green is both fixer and instigator. Late in the second quarter of Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, Green fired an errant pass and yelled at Durant, the shouting continuing into a timeout. “It was a bad pass,” Kerr announced in the huddle. Several Warriors referenced the significance of the timeout, with Curry going so far as to suggest the team could have splintered. “I think it was important because Steve had Kevin’s back,” an assistant said. Golden State, in peril for a solid 20 minutes, was again home-free.

“Remember why you’re here,” Green told Durant as the Finals opened. “It’s for this.” After the Warriors took the title last June, Durant braced for a transformation, and it never came. “Remember when you got your job?” Durant says. “For two days, you’re really excited, and then you have to get to work. Basketball is great and championships are great. My life is intertwined with this game. It’s who I am. But there are things I want to do that are more fulfilling than getting sprayed with champagne. There’s family, friends, life, culture.” He is particularly proud of the documentaries and TV shows he and Kleiman are producing through Thirty Five Media. 

Assuming Golden State doesn’t self-sabotage, the responsibility of restoring suspense to the NBA falls on James, per usual. After he scored 51 points in Game 1, the Warriors adjusted their defense, jamming him on the perimeter with help at the rim. Durant picked him up at half-court, and Curry withstood incessant switches. James left the Q with a bloody eye, a bruised hand and a blank slate to create a superteam rebuttal in the market of his choosing. The Dubs hadn’t even popped corks and social media influencer Joel Embiid was already tweeting sweet-nothings at the King.

Get ready for a seismic summer, with James and Paul George hitting free agency, plus several other keystones inching closer to the trade market. “I want to see that movement,” Durant says. “I think it will make the league better.” Even in Philadelphia, with Embiid and Ben Simmons, or Houston, with Paul and James Harden, or Los Angeles, with George and prospects, LeBron cannot immediately match wattage with Golden State. But the eternal quest to capsize the Warriors will determine this latest decision, more than corporate ambitions or children’s schools.

Durant will be watching like everyone else, swaddled in sweats at his home in the sky, 54 stories and two trophies above it all. 

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