The parameters of the most loaded series of the NBA playoffs so far—a collision between three former MVPs and three more stars for good measure—have gradually closed in around Kevin Durant. In the first minute of action between Brooklyn and Milwaukee in Game 1, James Harden came up from a drive grabbing his right hamstring, the same muscle in the same leg that cost him a month of basketball in the final stages of the regular season. He has yet to return to the floor. In his absence, even more has been asked of Durant and costar Kyrie Irving, who have played upward of 40 minutes in every game this series that they didn’t win by blowout or unfortunately, in Irving’s case, leave due to yet another injury.
Irving hung in the air to get off a shot deep in the paint during the second quarter of Game 4, but came down at the worst possible moment and in the worst possible place: directly on the foot of Giannis Antetokounmpo, which caused Irving’s ankle to turn sideways. The impact was severe enough that Irving reflexively lifted his injured ankle and collapsed on his side with the full weight of his body instead. He writhed in pain; he clutched at his leg; and, in a moment that was both encouraging and worrisome, Irving limped off the court and down the tunnel under his own power. Milwaukee went on to even the series with a 107-96 win, though in effect it began a new matchup against a superteam down to its last star.
The dynamics of a series that Brooklyn opened with a 2-0 lead began to turn days earlier, when P.J. Tucker—a studied, tenacious defender made largely of cinder block—managed to disturb the rhythm of the NBA’s most fluid scorer. It’s immensely challenging to actually bother Durant, in a basketball sense; many of the players who guard him can’t get a hand up high enough and fast enough to even alter his shot, which then nudges them toward increasingly desperate tactics. Often he scores anyway. But Tucker fought him for position in the half court before Durant even touched the ball and knocked him off balance at every opportunity. He guarded Durant in the past two games in a way that officials frankly did not allow in the previous two.
“I thought it was borderline-non-basketball physical at times, but that’s the playoffs,” Nets coach Steve Nash told reporters (and lobbied the league office) after the game. “You have to adapt and adjust. Something definitely in a sense changed from the way the game was played in Brooklyn and here in Milwaukee.”
The more physical terms of engagement favored the burly forward with heavy hands, who was so emboldened he rose to stop an unstoppable scorer listed as 5 inches taller at the peak of his jumper and—no matter what the refs would tell you—blocked it:
In Game 3, Tucker’s defense against Durant turned into a tremendous battle within the battle, worth watching closely just to see how one of the NBA’s best isolation scorers and one of its best isolation stoppers would reckon with one another. Now that Harden and Irving may be out of the lineup, that matchup could be the whole series in miniature. Brooklyn posted record-setting offensive numbers this season despite almost always missing some star or another, but road-weary regular-season opponents don’t have much in common with a playoff-focused squad like the Bucks—and the overmatched defenders Durant blitzed in January don’t have the experience or chops that Tucker does. KD will always make certain shots look easy, but in Game 4 he needed 25 shots to reach 28 points, Brooklyn managed only 96 in total, and none of his teammates but Irving managed to score in double digits. If Durant can’t generate enough offense to boost his role player teammates, the Nets might not survive long enough to get back the star power that makes them such compelling contenders in the first place.
That’s a real concern after Tucker and the Bucks held Durant to 20-for-53 (37.7 percent) shooting from the field over the past two games, which amounts to a best-case turnout considering the magnitude of talent involved. Give those same defenders time and a film session to prepare for Durant independent of Irving and Harden, and you’re likely to see an even more calculated swarming defense than they managed after Irving exited Game 4. This kind of crowd is only the beginning:
But before even getting to the back line where multiple defenders will be ready to crash on his every drive, Durant will have to get past a defender who has committed his every move to memory. The two former Longhorns have now met in three of the past four postseasons, each reunion as intensely competitive as this—even if they didn’t result in a nose-to-nose confrontation that Durant’s personal bodyguard unbelievably thought he needed to sprint onto the floor to break up. Tucker and Durant are friends outside the lines but competitors first. The constant chatter between them is part of what turns a defensive assignment into an event.
At first, this series seemed like it might not live up to their history, but Tucker, to his tremendous credit, has made himself an undeniable factor yet again. In the first three minutes and seven seconds of Game 2, Tucker picked up two fouls that sent him to the bench and called his value in this series into question. What good could he do if wasn’t allowed to offset his height disadvantage with physicality? Durant, to that point, had overwhelmed and outfoxed even his best efforts, and Tucker had given the Bucks so precious little on offense as to cause active harm to their spacing. Game 4 was a hard-won swing of the pendulum back toward the playoff impact Tucker has so often enjoyed, not just on defense but with better all-around play: a playoff-high 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting to go along with seven rebounds in 29 tenacious minutes. It wasn’t a coincidence that some of his best basketball came in Milwaukee’s most commanding run: a 21-4 second-quarter sprint with Antetokounmpo at center, reeled off just before Irving’s injury.
Durant was on the floor for every second of that game-turning stretch but didn’t attempt a single shot. He tried to run a high pick-and-roll with Nicolas Claxton, but Tucker chased him so aggressively over the screen he turned Claxton’s shuffling feet into an offensive foul. So Durant tried to set a screen for Irving instead to put the defense in a bind, but Tucker flattened himself out enough to slide between the two Nets, disrupting the contact of the screen without getting in the way of Jrue Holiday’s pursuit. (Irving took—and missed—a tough, short-range fadeaway.) When Durant tried to lay back and let the offense come to him instead, Tucker stayed attached regardless of whether KD was spotting up in the corner or 28 feet from the basket. Then at long last, when Durant finally got his chance to go to work against Tucker from his preferred spot on the right wing, he looked over the top of his 6-foot-5 obstruction and saw Khris Middleton coming his way with a soft double-team. Durant tried to get ahead of it with a pass to the other side of the court but put too much air under it, leading to a pick-six layup going the other way.
The work for Durant only gets harder from here, but it starts the same way: with a defender who knows his game as well as anyone, a defender who puts on Durant’s own shoes before setting out to ruin his every waking moment.