2017 NBA Finals: Grading Every Star Player's Performance Through 3 Games
Role players are nice to have around when you need a quaint little ball screen or a spot-up jumper once in a while, but the 2017 NBA Finals are proving superstars determine the outcomes of the games that matter most.
The Golden State Warriors, led by a quartet of studs, own an insurmountable 3-0 lead after knocking off the Cleveland Cavaliers (and their own trio of luminaries) in a 118-113 Game 3 gut punch Wednesday.
Stephen Curry is nearly averaging a triple-double, and he's been the third-best player in the series.
So as we hand out grades to each of the stars in these 2017 Finals, understand something: The marks are all high because these guys, to a man, have played exceptionally well.
Not everyone's been perfect, but that's another key in our evaluations. Kevin Love isn't held to the same standard as James or Durant. In each case, we'll judge these stars' production and impact against their specific capabilities.
At the risk of spoiling things, all seven stars in this series have been awesome.
Some, though, have been spectacular.
Stephen Curry: A+
Stephen Curry's domination of games and then explaining afterward there was still room for improvement is as good of a Finals synopsis as you'll find.
He claimed the Warriors could be better after scoring 28 points and handing out 10 assists in Game 1. Then, after eight turnovers marred his triple-double in Game 2, he told reporters, "There's an eight on the stat sheet that I need to correct when we go to Cleveland."
In Game 3, he amassed 26 points, 13 rebounds and six assists while, probably to his great delight, giving up just one turnover.
On balance, Curry has looked like the MVP we saw last year. The knee injury that hampered him last postseason is only a memory. He's flinging up deep treys with abandon and punishing big men who try to stay in front of him on switches.
Defensively, Curry has competed hard enough to take the target off his back, per Zach Lowe of ESPN.com: "Curry guarded the screener on only five pick-and-rolls in Game 2, down from 13 in the opener, when the Cavs largely aped the game plan that won them the title last season."
By tagging the ball-handler (usually James) and quickly recovering, he's short-circuiting switches and forcing Cleveland to look for prey elsewhere.
Game 3 found him in the crosshairs again, and though Cleveland got some favorable looks against him, the Warriors point guard still managed a plus-11 on the night.
He's averaging 28.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 9.0 assists while hitting 48.4 percent of his threes in the series, but he'll be the first to tell you he can still get better.
Good luck figuring out how.
LeBron James: A+
LeBron James won't win Finals MVP, but he should.
If he couldn't pull off the feat in a losing effort two years ago, when he averaged 35.8 points, 13.3 rebounds and 8.8 assists in a six-game defeat, he's not going to do it this time either.
That's despite current averages of 32.0 points, 12.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists against an even better iteration of the Warriors.
Fatigue remains his only obstruction, and James clearly wore down in Game 3, scoring just one bucket in the paint during the decisive fourth quarter. This, after registering zero second-half drives and only four points in the paint after posting five drives and 16 paint points before the break in Game 2, according to Micah Adams of ESPN Stats & Info.
Still, James continues to appear otherwise indestructible.
Following a heavy shoulder to the jaw that knocked him flat (thanks a bunch, Tristan Thompson), James concluded the first quarter of Game 3 with 16 of his 39 eventual points, punctuating the hot start with a jumper-steal-dunk sequence that ignited an anxious crowd.
When he went to the bench with a couple of minutes left in that opening frame, the Warriors uncorked a 10-0 run.
The guy is averaging a triple-double in the Finals while shooting 55.4 percent from the field.
If there were a higher grade available, James would get it.
Kevin Durant: A+
Ladies and gentlemen, your 2017 NBA Finals MVP.
If James can't win it from what'll almost certainly be the losing side, Durant is the clear front-runner.
Maybe it's the heightened focus brought about by the Finals, or perhaps KD senses the chance to fully vindicate his decision to join the Warriors with a title win. Whatever the case, Durant has reached his apex in this series.
We'll hit the overall resume in a second, but Durant has already locked up the series' signature moment to this point: a dagger triple to steal Game 3 with 45 seconds remaining—a cold-blooded finisher he walked into with obscene confidence.
The 31 points, eight rebounds and four assists Durant posted in Game 3 were his lowest totals in each category, which says everything about his box score production.
Overall, he's tossing up 34.0 points, 10.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.3 steals on 56.1 percent shooting. From deep, he's knocking down an unfathomable 52.4 percent.
And man, this whole defense thing...
Durant has quietly evolved on D this season, embracing roles as both rim protector and perimeter stopper in a Golden State scheme that demands that sort of variety from its "bigs."
He blocked five shots and snatched three steals in Game 2, which along with his 33 points, 13 rebounds and six assists gave him a five-category line never before produced in a Finals game.
KD has been Golden State's best player, and that's no small feat as all of its stars have made their marks in building a 3-0 lead.
Kyrie Irving: B
Offensively, Irving wasn't all that bad in Games 1 and 2.
He's facing some of the nastiest wing defenders in the league. His skills as a tough shot maker are without compare, but even he has his limits.
In Game 3, none of it mattered. Not the rangy defense. Not the degree of difficulty. Not the stakes. Nothing.
Irving scored 38 points on 16-of-29 shooting, and you'd be hard-pressed to recall a single easy bucket. He finished everything around the rim. Flips, floaters, wrong-footed bankers and herky-jerky scoops all went down—particularly during a third-quarter surge in which he scored 16 points.
Irving's series averages are up to 27.0 points, 4.0 assists and 3.7 rebounds.
If he were shooting better than 29.4 percent from deep and could avoid getting crushed on defense, he might have earned a better mark.
To that point, it's on defense where Irving has predictably hurt Cleveland most.
Whether going all bug-on-a-windshield whenever screened or more generally failing to execute the complicated switching demands posed by the Warriors' off-ball cutting, he's been a net negative throughout the series.
A knee injury may be to blame, but it's harder to buy that excuse after watching him torch Golden State on offense in Game 3.
Klay Thompson: A-
The Warriors probably hoped for more offense from Klay Thompson in the first two games of the Finals, but his ability to impact the proceedings without scoring highlights one of the key reasons Golden State is on the verge of sweeping Cleveland.
His scoring is a bonus.
In contrast, when Irving or Kevin Love aren't contributing points, it's harder for them to help the Cavs. When Tristan Thompson isn't doing work on the offensive glass, he's a liability.
Thompson's reputation as a killer marksman will always create space. He's like Curry that way; the gravity generated by his mere presence on the floor has massive offensive value, even if he's not hitting.
And in Game 3, he hit.
In 41 minutes, Thompson cranked out 30 points on only 18 shots, all while doing whatever he could to chase Irving around the floor.
For the series, Thompson is averaging 19.3 points and 5.7 rebounds on 43.5 percent shooting from long distance.
Having seen fatigue affect the seemingly superhuman James, it's a true wonder Thompson never seems to tire. Shooters need their legs, and it's tough to imagine anything sapping lower-half energy like trying to stay in a defensive stance as Irving twists you into knots off the dribble.
Kevin Love: B
In some sense, the analysis for Love is a lot like it is for James.
You just ask, "What else do you want him to do?"
Love, like James, is playing at full capacity. His physical gifts aren't as varied and spectacular as James' are, which is the key bar-lowering difference. But for a defensively limited big man pressed increasingly into spot-up duties by circumstance, Love is giving Cleveland all he's got.
He's engaged when switching onto guards, moving laterally as best he can while hustling to relocate his man underneath. On the glass, too, Love has done everything the Cavs could expect. His 21 rebounds in Game 1 will surely stick as the series high for however much longer these teams play.
Love never turns it over, moves the ball when he doesn't have a look and has provided more stretch than any other supporting scorer. Just imagine how constricted the lane would be for James and Irving if Love weren't knocking down even 30 percent of his threes so far.
That's third-best among Cleveland's rotation players and looked a whole lot better before he went 1-of-7 from deep in Game 3.
Even in that disappointing shooting night, Love provided 13 rebounds and six steals. His multiple efforts on the offensive glass in the third quarter helped the Cavs generate several second looks and take the lead.
More than anything, Love's excellent grade reflects the relativity of these evaluations.
He's not changing the entire complexion of the series, he's not taking over games and he's not piling up triple-doubles while guarding five positions.
But Love is scoring, rebounding and defending at or above the level of expectation.
When looking around at Cleveland's supporting cast for someone to blame, let's make sure to skip Love this time.
Draymond Green: A-
The counting numbers aren't enough to bowl you over like they are with Durant, James or Curry, but then, they rarely are for Draymond Green.
So it doesn't make sense to start with his three-game averages of 9.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists.
His eight points, eight rebounds and seven assists in Game 3 are similarly underwhelming when other superstars are lighting the stat sheet on fire.
Instead, notice how Golden State has frustrated Cleveland's offensive attack with telepathic communication, pre-play switches, clairvoyant anticipation and rabid focus.
That's Green's work, the guy on the back line (unless he's switching up top or roving around elsewhere, wreaking havoc) organizing the chaos in his half quarterback, half symphony conductor role...if the orchestra played death metal.
The Warriors' performance on defense against a Cavs team that came into the Finals absolutely aflame is more remarkable than what they've done on the other end, and that's saying something.
Green is the tone-setter for what's been an all-time defensive effort. He could go the rest of the series without a point and still earn a high grade.
Fouls have been an issue, and Green remains one of the few offensive players the Cavs can afford to ignore from long range. But in light of his all-around contributions and emotional leadership (which admittedly sometimes gets a little too emotional), Green has been invaluable.