LOS ANGELES — As Warriors forward Kevin Durant hit the floor of the Staples Center, he flexed his chest and bellowed.
Late in the second quarter of Golden State’s 132-105 win over the Los Angeles Clippers in Game 3 of the first round of the NBA playoffs, Durant had charged through the paint, gathered a missed rim-run lay-up by Draymond Green between two Clippers, and made a desperation jumper almost parallel to the ground while falling away from Danilo Gallinari.
It was the kind of play that earned him the appelation “most talented basketball player on the planet” from teammate Andrew Bogut earlier this week. It was the kind of play Durant hadn’t made in the first two games of the series against the Clippers.
“He came out super aggressive,” Green said. “He was in kill mode.”
Golden State’s last three days have been dominated by introspection, reservation and doubt following their 31-point meltdown in Game 2, a game in which Durant took just eight shots, and turned the ball over nine times. At practice on Wednesday, Kerr had said that he wanted Durant to shoot the ball 20, even 30 times per game. Durant defiantly said, “I don’t play like that.” During a media scrum, he peppered his answers with mentions of his personal pest Patrick Beverley, before declaring, “You know who I am. I’m Kevin Durant.”
After taking just 24 shots over the first two games of the series, after both his focus and decision-making were questioned, Durant re-asserted himself Thursday, going 14-for-23 and scoring 38 points with seven assists and four rebounds, reminding the NBA world why he’s the best scorer of his generation, just as the Warriors reminded the basketball world why they’re the biggest first-round favorites in 30 years.
“He said it yesterday, he’s Kevin Durant,” said head coach Steve Kerr. “He showed everybody who Kevin Durant is.”
With the crowd chanting “M-V-P” for his much-smaller tormentor Beverley — who previously forced ill-advised passes and fouls of frustration from Durant in the first two games — Durant took four shots in the first six minutes, and every time he touched the ball, he looked to score. He didn’t miss his first shots until 19 minutes into the game, hitting his first six. Durant attributed the barrage to new plays drawn up by Kerr, and a concerted effort to get him the ball.
“We made some adjustments in terms of trying to get him in better positions on the floor,” said point guard Stephen Curry. “We all know what spots to be in on the floor … It allows him to be more aggressive, knowing where the help’s coming from … Obviously, at the end of the day, he got to shoot the ball and he did and he made it. He was amazing tonight.”
Durant even got the better of Beverley, keeping his cool as the Clippers guard put his hands all over him with 7:35 to go in the second quarter and drawing a foul. He then got a dish from Bogut (who had 14 rebounds, eight assists and five points) and hit a rise-up jumper over Beverley to up the lead to 21.
“I think a lot of people … thought that I should be engaging in a one-on-one physical battle, whatever that is, to other people, with Patrick Beverley,” Durant said. “You know, I don’t do that type of stuff. I just play.”
Midway through the second quarter, Durant had already attempted more shots (9) than he had all of Game 2. He scored more points in the first half (27) than he did in Games 1 and 2 combined (22). He scored more in the first half than he had in any first half in his postseason career. Even with two fouls, Kerr kept him on the floor.
“The way he started, we just thought it was good to keep him out there,” Kerr said.
Three nights removed from the worst playoff collapse in NBA history, the Warriors and Durant — who had been surly and combative early in the week — rediscovered the kind of joy that’s led the franchise to three NBA titles in four years, the joy that underpins Kerr’s entire coaching philosophy.
With 5:37 left to go in the first half, Klay Thompson drove home a two-handed slam dunk. The Los Angeles native — who grew up shooting baskets at Staples Center after Lakers practice — flexed both arms and mean mugged the crowd. Then, he locked eyes with Durant, and the two gleefully leaped up for a body bump.
A three by Andre Iguodala sent the Warriors veteran soaring back up court with his knees bent and his arms outstretched, and his defensive energy helped fuel a second unit that lacked the injured DeMarcus Cousins, but got three dunks and lock-down defense from Kevon Looney.
Durant was clinical in his mid-range game, hitting jumpers off of screens, on both elbows and on the blocks.
“They dissected us,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers.
Rivers was asked where his team went wrong. “When we showed up,” he said.
The Warriors shellacked Los Angeles 41-24 in the first quarter, holding the Clippers to just 8-of-21 shooting from the floor while shooting 16-of-23 themselves.
“High energy, high focus, [we] tried to set the tone early in the first six minutes,” said Curry, who fouled out, but had 21 points in 20 minutes, to go along with five rebounds.
Golden State was as dominant — and as cohesive — as it had been all season, shooting 51-of-93 from the floor (54.8%), 15-of-35 from three (42.9%) and holding Los Angeles to just 35-of-94 from the floor (37.2%), out-rebounding the Clippers 50-43.
Durant scored more points than he’s had in a game since Feb. 10. His 23 shot attempts were his most since a March 23 win over the Dallas Mavericks, and he would have had more, had he not sat the entire fourth quarter. His 10 attempted 3-pointers (he only hit three) were his most since Feb. 27.
Durant did, however, have one blemish: A technical foul he claimed was for just talking with JaMychal Green with eight minutes to go in the third, moments after Curry picked up his fourth foul. That’s where things went sour for the Warriors in Game 2, but Durant stepped up and hit a 3-pointer from the right side, keeping the lead at 29.
After Durant missed his next 3-point attempt, Draymond Green gathered the rebound and tossed it back to a wide-open Durant on the left wing, beyond the arc. After a slight hesitation, as if not quite knowing what to do with so much space, he nailed it, giving Golden State its largest lead of the night, at 99-66.