CLEVELAND • Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant faced plenty of backlash last year when he joined a ready-made title contender. But he has since proven that he is not simply along for the ride as he closes in on a maiden National Basketball Association (NBA) championship.
His sheer talent and uncanny ability to hit shots at key moments have been the difference for a Warriors team that have raced to a 3-0 lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the best-of-seven NBA Finals.
"We knew how good he was, but just how clutch he's been, how many big shots he's hit for us... it just looks like he understands this is his moment, this is his time," Golden State coach Steve Kerr said on Thursday. "He's earned it. He's, I think, at the top of his game at the biggest time."
Durant led all scorers in Game One and Game Two with 38 and 33 points respectively, and hit the game-winning three-pointer in the closing stages of Game Three on Wednesday.
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Barring a collapse of epic proportions, the forward will finally become an NBA champion in the coming days. He could also be named Finals Most Valuable Player (MVP), less than a year after ripping out the hearts of Oklahoma City fans by leaving the Thunder. That move by the four-time NBA scoring champion drew criticism as it came just weeks after the Warriors denied Durant and the Thunder a trip to last year's Finals, storming back from a 3-1 series deficit.
Added to the fact that he joined a Warriors team that won the NBA title in 2015 and followed that up by winning a record 73 games last season before falling to Cleveland in seven games, Durant was considered a villain by many. But not even Cavs superstar LeBron James, who remains the face of the NBA, would begrudge the move.
Points Kevin Durant scored in the fourth quarters of this year's Finals, one fewer than the combined tally of the Cavaliers' Big Three - LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
"It's great for our league," he said ahead of Game Four this morning (Singapore time), when he will be one loss from his fifth NBA Finals defeat in eight appearances.
"Right now, look at our TV ratings, look at the money our league is pouring in. I mean, guys are loving the game, our fans love the game...
"You have an opportunity to sign one of the best players, and you can do it, go ahead and do it. Why not? If I become an owner, I'm going to try to sign everybody."
For now, James is focused on prolonging the series.
"I knew it was going to be one of the toughest challenges I've had because of the firepower they have, because of the mindset that they were going to have," he said of facing a Warriors team looking to be the first to win a championship without losing a post-season game.
Durant knows what it is like to lose a Finals series, falling 1-4 in 2012 with the Thunder to the Miami Heat as James won his first title.
The former league MVP said he remains focused on just playing hard.
"That's what we always talk about, we all just want to have some fun but play disciplined," said the 28-year-old. "That's a battle I'm trying to go through more so than worrying about how I'm playing, how great I'm playing. I'm just trying to be solid for my team-mates."
REUTERS, WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Game 4, Cleveland v Golden State: Singtel TV Ch110, 9am