You just knew, as soon as it went up, that it would wind up playing over and over on highlight reels throughout history.
It was a shot for the ages, a journey trapped in amber: Kevin Durant pulling the ball off the rim after a missed left corner 3-pointer by Kyle Korver, a shot the all-time marksman was convinced was good when it left his hand, then loping down the floor in four dribbles, taking a quick one-two and rising up over the top of LeBron James:
It was a hesi pull-up jimbo heard ’round the world, one that completed the Warriors’ comeback victory in Game 3 of the 2017 NBA Finals and all but sealed the Cleveland Cavaliers’ grim fate. Five nights later, the Golden State Warriors were NBA champions, and Durant was celebrating his first NBA title with his first NBA Finals Most Valuable Player trophy.
That shot — so calm, so assured, so money — felt like a pivotal moment in Durant’s career to me as I watched it. As it turns out, it felt that way to Durant, too. From a new GQ feature by Zach Baron:
“That was the best moment I ever had,” Durant told me. “I made the game-winning shot in the finals against my f***ing idol. Somebody that I really, really, really followed since I was a ninth-grade high schooler. I felt like he was passing the torch to me.” […]
One would suspect James — still very much “in win mode” as he leads the NBA in minutes, ranks fourth in points per game and fifth in assists per game, shoots the highest percentage of his career and still regularly rips the hearts out of opposing fanbases — would contest the notion that a torch was passed. Still, Durant went head-to-head with LeBron for the bulk of the series and did more than hold his own. Durant averaged 35.2 points per game on 55.5 percent shooting from the field, 47.4 percent shooting from 3-point range, and a 92.7 percent mark from the free-throw line, to go with 8.2 rebounds, 5.4 assists, and 2.6 combined blocks and steals.
James might be the best player on the planet, but in that series, Durant often looked like the best player on the floor. And besides, LeBron can certainly appreciate the value of a statement jumper on the game’s greatest stage.
In the summer of 2013, after delivering the dagger that earned the Miami Heat their second straight NBA title in Game 7 of one of the greatest championship series ever, James called the shot “an MJ moment,” the kind of indelible play that justified the eternal and unceasing comparisons between James and Michael Jordan. Durant’s got a ways to go to get into that conversation, but his Game 3 triple — at long last, elevating himself out of that No. 2 spot he’s hated for so long — left him feeling the same sort of validation.
It also left him feeling something else, according to another new Durant feature by Ric Bucher of Bleacher Report:
“That was a ‘f–k you’ shot, for sure,” he says. “To everybody. Especially Paul Pierce. I heard him say, ‘I guess he don’t want to work no more.’ That really struck a nerve when he said that. C’mon, man, I put in work. I know what you were going for, but c’mon. One thing I pride myself on is working out and crafting my skills.”
The skills have never been in question; Durant didn’t become a four-time NBA scoring champion, a league MVP and a two-time Olympic gold medalist without putting in the work to earn those accomplishments. But after rising to a point where he could legitimately stake a claim to looking eye-to-eye with James during his 2014 MVP run, the public perception of Durant had taken a hit.
First, the foot injury that cost him the bulk of the 2015-16 season left him out of sight and out of mind as Stephen Curry rose to prominence and LeBron became a one-man gang in the Finals. Then came the decision to leave Oklahoma City for the Bay Area, which relegated Durant to a lower position in the NBA firmament for those fans and observers who find stars clustering in constellations rather than choosing to light up individual cities and franchises distasteful.
In the GQ feature, Durant revisits that decision from a familiar vantage and strikes a tone he’s adopted before. He notes that joining the Warriors was attractive in part because of the “joyous,” close-knit atmosphere surrounding Golden State, in part because of the allure of taking control of his career and moving to a new city for a new challenge, and in part because the myriad talents on the Warriors roster would allow him to play the game with a level of freedom he’d never experienced.
Durant also makes it clear, though, that those who carped on his choice as an indication that he prized fitting in over being a franchise’s signature star weren’t wrong:
He was enjoying being just a member of a team, rather than the face of it. “Steph Curry is the face of the franchise, and that helps me out, because I don’t have to,” he said. “I don’t want to have to be the leader. I’m not a leader. I’m bad at saying, ‘Stand behind me and follow me.’ No. I’m one of those guys that’s just like, ‘Let’s do this s*** together. Let’s just work everybody together. I don’t mind being on the front line with you, but let’s come and do it together.’ That’s my way of leadership. I’m leading by example.”
It’s a similar tack to the one Paul George took when former coach Nate McMillan suggested that the All-Star forward pushed his way out of Indiana and, ironically enough, toward Durant’s old stomping grounds in Oklahoma City, because he liked the idea of slotting in alongside a top dog in Russell Westbrook who would allow him to just play his game. And not too long before that, it’s the same sort of approach that James Harden took to defending himself against Kevin McHale’s claims that the bearded ball-handler’s aversion of leadership helped sink the 2015-16 Houston Rockets.
That’s not really surprising. Not everybody’s going to be the rah-rah guy in the locker room or the huddle, and Durant and George have both spoken in the past about their eagerness to work out with and accept mentorship from fellow stars with more experience under their belts — Kobe for KD, LeBron for PG.
Rail against the everyone’s-friends-now-because-of-AAU-and-nobody-really-competes-anymore culture all you want. But to a greater degree than ever before, players seem to be of the belief that it makes more sense to collaborate in pursuit of greater individual gains than to just keep banging your head against the rock to try to prove to everyone how much of an alpha dog you are … even if it means you’re going to suffer some slings and arrows when you pull up stakes and change uniforms.
When Durant chose to make his break, he did it in part because he’d seen a similar move — from Northeast Ohio to South Beach, rather than from SEC country to the Bay — pay dividends for the dude he’d later dot with the biggest shot of his career. More from Baron at GQ:
LeBron, [Durant] said, was the one who “gave me the courage to do that” — first to change teams, and then to sign the deals that he’s signed since. “Now, I could have did a better job studying how he approached everything after that. But I did it my way. And the next guy is gonna look at me as an example. We’re all working together now.” He said that ever since he came into the league, he’d been mindful of James’s way of doing things. He follows it still, in some respects, he said, though he was pleased to have gained some ground on the court. “He’s four years older than me, so he’s still the big homie. But I’m on the same level as a basketball player. Off the court, I can learn a thing from you. But as a basketball player, I feel like it’s 1A, 1B. And that’s an accomplishment for me.”
With his Warriors rampaging at the top of the West as he averages a too-easy 24.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 2.2 blocks per game, drilling 44.3 percent of his 3-pointers while turning in All-Defensive Team-caliber work as Golden State’s top rim protector, Durant justifiably feels like he’s on top of the world. Thanks to that shot — all the work that went into being confident enough to take it and capable of making it, and all the storm and stress that he exorcised when it fell through the net — he can look around the NBA landscape and feel as if he sees only peers, and no superiors.
No wonder, as he told Baron, he still thinks about the shot “pretty much every day.”
“That feeling was amazing,” he said.
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