OAKLAND, Calif. — The Golden State Warriors are kingslayers once more.
Riding 39 points from NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant and 34 points from Stephen Curry, the Warriors finished off the Cleveland Cavaliers with a 129-120 victory in Game 5 at Oracle Arena on Monday, secured their second championship in three years and cemented a compelling case, on the heels of a 16-1 playoff run, as perhaps the best team to ever play the sport of basketball.
For Durant, the win was sweet validation for his controversial decision last July 4 to defect from Oklahoma City westward to Oakland. Regardless of what may happen yet in his superlative and still-unfolding career, Durant will always be known as a champion, an undisputed megastar who overcame all kinds of external pressures to lead this team to one of most dominant playoff marks in NBA history.
"[Kevin's] had an amazing career, but he just took it to the next level," head coach Steve Kerr said. "He was incredible all season long. He had an amazing series, just dominated. Everybody for the last 10 years knew how good he was, but until you break through and win that first championship, there is still—there's always still something there.
"I'm just so happy Kevin has broken through—and there's more to come from him."
After a frustrating Game 4 loss three days prior in Cleveland, Durant made sure, time and again, that Golden State rose to this occasion. It seemed like every time the Cavs looked to whittle down the Warriors' lead and drive an already tense atmosphere inside Oracle to a suffocating level, Durant was there with some needed oxygen.
His ridiculous step-back three with 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter pushed the lead to 106-98 and kept the Cavs from cutting further into a single-digit lead. He also used his length and drove to the rim for one easy basket after another—a skill the Warriors lacked in the waning moments of last year's Finals.
But now, with one of the most agile bigs the game has ever known, the Warriors dictated the terms of play right up until the end.
And when Curry's three with 42 seconds left capped their scoring for the night, the crowd erupted with a force that must've put the United States Geological Survey on notice.
"I just tried to stay in the moment the whole series, and I think that worked for me," Durant said. "I remember plenty of times throughout my career I continued to just look in the past and look ahead and not stay in the moment. In this series, I just stayed in the moment. And we did it together."
For Durant's other four teammates in the Warriors' Death Lineup—Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala—as well as Ian Clark, Shaun Livingston, James Michael McAdoo and Kevon Looney, the title-clinching victory was perhaps even sweeter than it was for their recent arrival.
These eight players carried with them the sickening feeling of the loss to the Cavs in Game 7 last June. They knew all too well what it would mean to just have the chance to avenge the night they were turned into an international joke as the first team to ever blow a 3-1 series lead on the NBA's grandest stage.
Then again, Durant, too, knows what it's like to drop a Finals to James, having done just that in 2012—his only Finals appearance before this season.
Now, that feeling for both this season's returners and its highly publicized newcomer is but a fleeting footnote in their careers. They are champions, fulfillers of every expectation lobbed in their direction this season.
For first-time champions like Zaza Pachulia (14 seasons), JaVale McGee (nine), David West (14) and Matt Barnes (14), this championship was the culmination of 51 seasons of collective professional experience. Never before had any of these men known what it was like to sit atop the NBA. Maybe they took less money to be in Oakland. Maybe they were looking for a second—or even third—chance to make good on their potential, but champions, finally, they are.
And for Patrick McCaw and Damian Jones, the rookies who will make their true impact known next season and for years to follow, they've merely kicked off their careers with the kind of team accolades that have eluded so many legendary players. A better head start to life in the NBA they could not have asked for.
The postseason win-loss record may read 16-1 for this squad, but that doesn't mean the road was in any way easy, and Game 5 was just the latest depiction of the tenacity it required to finish this run against a pesky and inspired Cavs team led by LeBron James, whose Finals averages (33.6 points, 12.0 rebounds, 10.0 assists per night) might've resulted in a different outcome in any other year for Cleveland.
But these Warriors were too talented, too disciplined and too motivated to let another Finals get away from them, as it did a year ago.
They also had Durant to unleash hell on the Cavs at every opportunity.
"You got to call Kevin Durant a champ now," Curry said. "He's put the time in, and I'm just so happy for him to be able to realize his goal and be my teammate."
Kerr wanted his team to be more on edge in Game 5 than they were in Friday's Game 4—"I hope we're a little more nervous," he said—and his team answered the call from early on, though it took some time to get revved up.
With the Cavs nursing an eight-point lead not two minutes into the second quarter, the Warriors ripped off a 21-2 run before six minutes of game clock had elapsed, the final blow a Curry jumper that floated in from the left elbow.
As Tristan Thompson then knocked Curry to the ground, the two-time reigning Most Valuable Player lay splayed on the hardwood, staring straight up at the rafters as the crowd reached a blistering decibel level.
Despite an 8-2 Cavs flurry to end the half, the Warriors went to the locker room up 71-60. Cleveland trimmed that to five—thanks to a JR Smith three, one of seven he swished on the night—heading to the fourth, paving the way for the Warriors' eventual heroics and Durant's ultimate career triumph.
It's all but assured Durant will re-sign with the Warriors along with Curry, who was the first person he hugged after he embraced his mother at center court with confetti raining down all around.
"Nobody comes in and cares about the game or loves the game as much as I do or works as hard as do I at the basketball game," Durant said, the sense of accomplishment only finally starting to sink in. "You can talk about whatever happens on the outside, but inside those lines, I come to bring it every day. I work hard, I believe in myself, I believe in the game, I respect the game, I love the game, and I knew at some point in my life that it will come around for me. So I just tried to stay with those principles and keep grinding. I'm kind of lost for words right now."
Words or no, Durant doesn't need to explain anything to anyone anymore. He's now an inextricable part of the burgeoning NBA dynasty that has arisen in Oakland and left an indelible mark on the league, spurring arguably the greatest playoff run ever.
These Warriors are built to last.
And with Durant—an MVP, an international star, and now an NBA champion—they're only getting started.
Erik Malinowski covers the Warriors for B/R. His book, Betaball: How Silicon Valley and Science Built One of the Greatest Basketball Teams in History, will be published in October. Follow him on Twitter: @erikmal.