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Kevin Durant Re-stakes His Claim As the Greatest Hooper Alive

There’s a reason the Nets risked it all to land KD—and we were reminded of it in Game 5. With one star teammate out and the other hobbled, Durant put Brooklyn on his back, turning in one of the best performances in NBA playoffs history and leaving jaws agape.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Steve Nash tried to downplay it. Brooklyn’s head coach tried to say that the task at hand ahead of Game 5—replacing the playmaking of Kyrie Irving after his severe ankle sprain, doing so with James Harden likely still shelved by a hamstring strain, and doing it against a Bucks team that had won two straight to even its second-round series—did “not fall on Kevin [Durant]. This falls on the Nets.” Teams go where stars lead them, though. Which is why Durant, for his part, saw his responsibility on Tuesday a little bit differently.

“I picture me doing everything out there, just like I do every night,” Durant told reporters on Monday. “I might have to handle the ball more, I might have to post up more, come off pindowns more. I just gotta be prepared to do everything out there. Just like any night.”

Let the record show that Durant was, in fact, prepared to do everything out there at Barclays Center in Game 5. And let it also show that Tuesday was about as far as you can get from “just like any night.”

Even with the surprise return of Harden, who vaulted from doubtful to starting in about 10 hours, the Nets needed absolutely everything Durant could provide to erase a 17-point second-half deficit and take control of a game that could decide the series. Durant provided it, carrying the Nets in an unbelievable, celestial, total performance: 49 points on 16-for-23 shooting, 17 rebounds, 10 assists, three steals, and two blocks in a full 48 minutes of all-time work.

It’s Durant’s second playoff triple-double, and the second-highest-scoring postseason performance in his illustrious career, trailing only the 50 he scored to close out the Clippers in the opening round of the 2019 playoffs. He’d suffer a calf strain in the next round against Houston; that injury would keep him sidelined until the Finals, where he’d rupture his Achilles tendon. When Durant went down against Toronto, we wondered whether we’d ever see him at the peak of his powers again; just over two years later, he has thrown down the first 45-15-10 playoff game ever, which seems like a pretty emphatic “yes.”

Durant’s Game 5 also marks the first time anyone’s gone the distance in a playoff game since LeBron James did it in Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference finals. Like LeBron, Durant did it because his team couldn’t survive without him on the court. Like LeBron, Durant won, overwhelming the Bucks after intermission to propel the Nets to a thrilling 114-108 win that gives Brooklyn the chance to end Milwaukee’s season in Game 6 on Thursday. And like LeBron did in that game against Boston, Durant, through sheer force of will and historic skill, loudly renewed his claim to the most rarefied air the sport has to offer: the title of the Best Basketball Player in the World.

It didn’t seem like that was going to be the dominant story line midway through the third quarter, when a short jumper by All-Star forward Khris Middleton put Milwaukee up 76-60. To that point, the Bucks had controlled the action. They jumped out to an early double-digit lead behind strong starts from their stars and snare-drum-tight defense that held Brooklyn to 15 points on 4-for-20 shooting in the opening frame. Harden was clearly nowhere near healthy after both a serious hamstring strain and a 10-day layoff, reduced to floating around the perimeter and trying to pick out pinpoint passes to set up teammates; he and Joe Harris combined to miss 15 of their first 17 shots. If not for the also-recently-returned-from-injury Jeff Green, who was unconscious from 3-point range (27 points, including 7-of-8 shooting from deep), the Bucks probably would’ve been up by a lot more than 16.

From there, though, KD took over. He dusted nemesis P.J. Tucker off the bounce for a layup on the baseline, threw one cross-court dime to Green for a catch-and-shoot 3, and another to Landry Shamet out of the post. He ran dribble handoffs with Blake Griffin, cut along the baseline for a high-low find from Harden, and sprung the struggling Harris for a layup with a well-timed back screen. All that work chopped Milwaukee’s lead down to just five … and that’s when KD started smelling blood.

Durant punished Milwaukee for playing its preferred drop coverage on pick-and-rolls, taking high screens from Griffin and Bruce Brown—like, really high screens, set right at half court—and using the runway to race downhill at Bucks center Brook Lopez, who could neither stay in front of KD nor bother his midrange pull-up:

Eventually, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer had seen enough of that, so he took Lopez out of the game in favor of a smaller lineup with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Tucker, and Middleton up front, and instructed his players to start switching all ball screens. So Durant changed his approach, bringing Shamet up to screen for him to put the diminutive Bryn Forbes into the pick-and-roll action. Forbes tried to just hedge on the screen and stall Durant long enough for Tucker to get back into the play. But KD wasn’t having that, hitting P.J. with a crossover and driving into the paint, drawing help, and opening up a dump-off pass to Brown for a layup:

Bud promptly called timeout, yanked Forbes, and inserted Pat Connaughton into the lineup. Here’s the thing: While Connaughton is certainly bigger, stronger, and more defensively capable than Forbes, he is still half a foot shorter than Durant, and not as quick. So KD just brought him into the screening action and forced the switch, resulting in a pair of free throws and two pull-up bombs in the span of three possessions:

OK, fine: Bud wouldn’t have Connaughton switch anymore. He’d just tell Pat to hedge high above the 3-point arc, teaming with Tucker to try to get the ball out of Durant’s hands and make somebody else beat him. Problem: Shamet’s pretty nifty rolling into space, as it turns out, capable of getting to his own shot or making the extra pass to an open teammate.

From Middleton’s mid-third-quarter jumper through that 3 above by Green, Brooklyn outscored Milwaukee 44-24. More to the point: Durant outscored the Bucks 25-24 in that stretch, making nine of his 10 shots; he also dished five assists leading to 12 more points in that span, and did it all without a turnover.

It was a master class in how to dismantle an excellent defense, taught by a committed craftsman whose years of work have left him with no holes in his game—and one who, when the situation calls for it, can also pull a horseshoe out of his ass at the death of the shot clock, alchemize it into a dagger, and plunge it straight into the opponent’s heart:

Giannis, for all that he is and all that he can do—34 points on 14-for-22 shooting, 12 rebounds, four assists, and two blocks in defeat—can’t do that. He just doesn’t have the answers he needs when it matters most.

He’ll go through stretches when it looks like he’s developing them: when he dutifully screens and rolls on every Bucks possession for a quarter; when the 3s actually go down or, better yet, when he turns them down to find an open shooter who can hit from the perimeter; when he slithers through the cracks in the wall, or just smashes through it to get where he wants to go. Time and again in the postseason, though, we’ve seen him run up against his limitations—as an initiator in the half court, as a jump shooter, as a free throw shooter, as a low-post operator, as an overall creator of offense against elite competition—and come up wanting. We saw it again down the stretch in Game 5:

Giannis and the Bucks will rue those miscues—the turnaround fadeaway in the post on Harden, who was adamant that he didn’t want any help guarding the two-time MVP despite clearly being hampered by his hamstring; the turnover with 15.6 seconds left, when Giannis could’ve dunked for the tie only to literally drop the ball through his legs. They’ll spend the next 48 hours thinking about being two steps slow to adjust when Durant was starting to cook, about not bringing hard doubles early or at least trying Giannis on Durant, and about their failure to attack a hobbled Harden on defense despite him being on the court for 46 minutes.

They’ll think about once again going away from their active and effective first-half offense in favor of more dead-end isolations, and how they might have been able to survive KD’s explosion had they scored at a more robust clip than 91.4 points per 100 possessions from the middle of the third quarter on. The Bucks squandered a golden opportunity to head home with a chance to advance to the conference finals; instead, they must now stave off elimination, and all the upheaval likely to come with it.

They’ve certainly got a chance of extending the series. Harden’s hamstring didn’t seem ready for prime time; the Nets probably can’t bank on Jeff Green making seven 3s a night; it’s tough to rely on KD having the Best Game of His Hall-of-Fame Career again. It wouldn’t be shocking for this to come down to a Game 7 back at Barclays on Saturday. If it does, the Nets will enter that winner-take-all Thunderdome confident in the heavy artillery they’re bringing with them—the kind of firepower that even the other team’s top gun recognizes as all but impossible to equal.

This is why you pay as much money as the rules allow for a player who has just suffered perhaps the most devastating injury a basketball player can suffer, knowing full well that he will not set foot on the court for the first year of his contract and that there’s at least a chance he won’t come back looking like the player he once was. It’s because there’s also a chance he will, and that player—the one you remember, the one you’ll never forget—is something like the ultimate offensive weapon, a god-mode cheat code, a sonnet of a giant who can answer any question a defense asks of him.

You do everything in your power to bring him to your team for nights like this one, because if someone’s going to be doing something immortal in a playoff series, you’d like him to be wearing your uniform. The Nets are now within one game of the Eastern Conference finals because Kevin Durant is a Net, and because Kevin Durant’s one of the only people who’s ever existed who can do that. Who can do everything out there. Just like any night.