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Jerry Sullivan: Warriors need Durant to play big one more time

A year ago, after the Warriors lost Game Seven to the Cavs in the NBA Finals, Draymond Green wasted no time. While sitting in his car in the parking lot, Green placed a call to his general manager, Bob Myers, telling Myers he needed to get Kevin Durant.

Green then called Durant from his car and pitched the Warriors as a free-agent destination. Soon after, a bunch of Warriors visited Durant to sell him on coming. Two weeks later, on Independence Day, the Warriors signed Durant to a two-year, $54.3 million deal, with a one-year out.

Later, Green told Durant that they didn't have any great need for "KD" in the regular season. After all, they had won an NBA record 73 games the season before without him.

"But you know when those NBA Finals come around," Green said, "we’re really going to need you to play big for us."

Durant understood that he would ultimately be judged by what happened in June. The Warriors had won the title in 2015, then lost a repeat title by squandering a 3-1 series lead to Cleveland in the Finals.

So Durant knew the deal. Critics were crushing the 6-10 forward for leaving Oklahoma City and running to a super team to pursue a championship. Charles Barkley said he was "gravy-training," piling on with a great team to win his first NBA title and buff his reputation as a big-game player.

The Warriors won 14 in a row without him during the regular season, reviving talk that they could win it all without him. But once the Finals arrived, with the "Dubs" looking for redemption against LeBron James and the Cavs, it was finally time for Durant to deliver.

Durant had a lot to lose in the Finals. It wasn't enough for him to win, he had to validate himself as a superstar. He had to win in emphatic fashion, without leaving the impression that Golden State's trio of great players had carried him to his first NBA title.

He's been criticized for tipping the balance of power in the league, for making the playoffs a bore. There's validity to the argument that he took the easy way out, though it's hardly the first time a player loaded up with a bunch of stars to go for a title.

The 1985-86 Celtics, who won the title after picking up Bill Walton, had five Hall of Famers on their roster that season. So did the 1984-85 Lakers. The 1982 Sixers lost to the Lakers in the Finals, then added Moses Malone, the league's second-leading scorer.

Philly swept the Lakers in the '83 Finals, turning the tables on the team that had denied them the year before. Yes, the exact scenario as the Warriors and Cavs this postseason.

Durant was terrific, to no one's surprise. He averaged 25.1 points in the regular season and shot 53.7 percent from the field, easily his career high. He had a career best in blocks and anchored a defense that led the NBA in field-goal defense by a sizable margin.

When he signed with Golden State, Durant said he wanted to grow as a player and a person. He has done that. Some would say it's easy to improve alongside Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Green, but the Warriors' system has liberated him and accentuated his strengths.

“I think that he has grown in terms of his ability to play with the other four guys, with our movement and our spacing and our flow,” said Warriors head coach Steve Kerr. “Over the course of the year, he’s gotten better and better with that.

"Just understanding when to cut, when to screen, when to come off a screen, and instead of just being on the ball and making a play, making a play without the ball. That’s a big part of what we do.”

Durant has been fabulous in the playoffs. His scoring has increased with each series, as if the pressure and heightened expectations were pushing him forward, building to the inevitable climax in the Finals.

He's averaging 34.3 points in the Finals and has scored 30 in each game, joining Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal as the only players to score at least 25 points in their first nine Finals games. Durant sank a winning three-pointer late in Game Three and is the clear favorite for Finals MVP.

That assumes, of course, that the Warriors win the title. "It's not over," Durant said after the third game. "We've still got a lot of work to do."

He was right. The Cavs rode a record offensive night to a win in Game Four, pushing the series back to Oakland for Monday's fifth game. The Warriors also led 3-1 before collapsing last season. So they have lost four consecutive chances to close out the Cavs in the Finals.

So this is the moment Green had in mind when he told Durant he would need to be big for the "Dubs" in the Finals. The Warriors had won 15 straight in the playoffs and 30 of 31 overall. The loss came when Kerr rested his starters in the next-to-last game of the regular season.

Golden State hadn't lost a game that mattered with Durant playing more than two minutes since Feb. 13. But their shabby effort in Quicken Loans Arena on Friday made you wonder if they were still vulnerable – and if they could have beaten the Cavs  without Durant.

When the Cavs went down 3-0, it seemed unfathomable for them to win four in a row. But if they pull the upset Monday, it will create enormous pressure on the Warriors and Durant.

Kerr has said this Finals is Durant's moment, his time, his chance to show the world how good he really is. He said Durant was having the time of his life. But this is the closest thing they've had to a crisis this year.

"Closeout games are always the toughest," Durant said. "As you heard from many players in this league over the years, how tough closeout games are on the road. I've never been in this position being up in the Finals and trying to close it out."

His teammates have struggled to get it done before. In Game Four, Durant was the only Warrior consistently attacking the basket against a Cavs defense that was average in the regular season. He scored 10 points in a row at one point to keep them in shouting distance.

The Warriors went 11-for-39 from three-point range in Game Four. They rely on the three, but they need to follow Durant's lead and take the ball to the rim, the way James and the Cavs did early on Friday.

The pressure is on, and it'll grow more intense until the Warriors close the series out. The pressure is greatest on Durant, but that's why they got him. The thing is, he's not the one who blew a 3-1 lead in last year's Final. At some point, it would be nice if the guys carried him.

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