He also understands, better than anyone, that the criticism of Durant for bidding Oklahoma City and Russell Westbrook adieu weeks after the Thunder had surrendered a 3-1 Western Conference finals advantage to the Warriors last season was overdone and historically ignorant.
The great players in the N.B.A. have always understood how to exploit their muscle, one way or another. From much of the reaction to Durant’s decision, you would have thought no other ring-less superstar had ever jilted a rising league power, but that large, smiling man sitting behind the ABC broadcast team Wednesday night was a useful reminder otherwise.
Granted, in bolting Orlando for the Los Angeles Lakers in 1996, Shaquille O’Neal didn’t enlist with the team that had just ambushed his arena, but, really, what’s the difference? What’s wrong with a player using his collectively bargained freedom from the much richer owners to choose a team he envisions as a better fit for him in a place he believes is more desirable in which to live?
In the pre-free-agent days, Wilt Chamberlain moved, West to East and then East to West. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar brooded his way out of Milwaukee, to the Lakers, where he teamed with Magic Johnson to win five titles. The folks who would tell you that Kobe Bryant would never have left the Lakers forget that he threatened to on occasion and manipulated the entire draft process to get there in the first place.
No question, Durant’s Oklahoma City departure has contributed mightily to a competitively lopsided postseason, with the Warriors, now 15-0, and the Cavaliers blowing through conference play and the Warriors just one victory from an unprecedented four-series sweep. The guess is James and the Cavaliers will fight hard to prevent that in Game 4 on Friday night, the league will survive if it happens and its fan base will eventually look back in awe.
As Adam Silver, the league’s commissioner, said last week, “The fan in me would love to see more competition at times, but on the other hand, I’ve said it before, I think we should also celebrate excellence.”
“I also think these things have a way of working themselves out,” he added.
It’s entirely possible the Warriors are embarking on a run to match or exceed what Michael Jordan achieved in Chicago across the 1990s. They are young and apparently selfless enough, but we’ll see how success impacts them and how the more smartly run franchises in the league respond.
The life span of envisioned indestructibility is always in question, as Mike Tyson proved, and later Tiger Woods. For a very long time now, James has been thought to be indefatigable, the basketball specimen impervious to frailty. But, at 32, the do-it-all quality of his play and the magnitude of his effort is finally taking its toll, exacerbated by the energy-sapping burden presented by Durant at both ends of the court, and by the Warriors over all.
Steve Kerr, the Warriors’ coach, was speaking of Kyrie Irving and James, who together scored 77 points over a combined 90 minutes in Game 3, when he said: “Both those guys were amazing, 38 and 39. But that takes a lot out of you. We just kept telling the guys, they’re going to get tired. Stay in front of them. Force them into outside shots, if you can. Fatigue will play a role.”
James had scoffed at the question of fatigue before Game 3, reminding a reporter that he had averaged a triple double in the first two games, snapping: “Do I look tired?”
The proof is in the performance. James’s last field goal Wednesday night came with 6 minutes 54 seconds remaining. He missed a very makable step-back 12-footer in the lane at the 1:29 mark and the Cavaliers up, 113-109. His legs didn’t respond fast enough to Durant on the game’s pivotal possession. Durant outscored him by 14-7 in the fourth quarter, (and by 31-11 over three games).
Of Durant, Kerr said: “You can tell he knows this is his moment. He’s been an amazing player in this league for a long time, and I think he’s — he senses this — is his time, his moment, his team.
“When I say his team, I mean it’s not literally just his team,” Kerr added. “We got a group around him that can help him and create space for him with the shooting and the playmaking, and I think he’s having the time of his life out there.”
In a nutshell, Kerr was asking, what is so wrong with an era in which the truly great players prefer to share the ball and the burden, as opposed to those post-Jordan years when one roster often wasn’t big enough for two franchise stars, and when we said his team, we meant literally just his team?
The Warriors have raised the bar on the drafting, development and acquiring of star-laden talent. And now James is almost out of time and chances to stop Durant, the Warriors’ finishing piece, from holding up the trophy and telling him, among others, your move.
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