Late in the first quarter of Saturday’s Game 7, Kevin Durant posted up on the right block against Jrue Holiday three times in a row. The yield: one ridiculous circus shot, a step-through layup, a Bruce Brown putback.
But after the third attempt, Durant slumped down the floor in transition.
Durant has about eight inches on Holiday, but Holiday is all muscle. At the end of the first quarter, Durant didn’t close out on Holiday’s 3-point attempt.
That was the warning.
“It definitely was part of our game plan to make him work on each possession as much as possible,” Bucks center Brook Lopez said of Durant. “And we knew it would pile up on him. We knew that having to be the guy, having to work to get his shots off, that would accumulate through seven games and that fatigue would be there, just enough.”
The plan worked, but it’s hard to make grand pronouncements about a series that came down to Durant’s shoe size; if his fourth-quarter buzzer-beater was just an inch behind the 3-point line, we never would have found out that he was on his last legs. Durant finished with 48 points, the most ever in a Game 7, but after playing all 53 minutes, he air-balled his final shot of the game and the Bucks escaped in overtime, sending them to the Eastern Conference finals.
The conditions certainly helped the Bucks, too. The moment has a way of meeting great teams, and the Bucks, after going down 2-0 in the series, didn’t look like they were built for it. Offenses are tearing up defenses across the league, and the Nets have a historic amount of offense; scorers are baiting referees with such regularity that the NBA is toying with rule changes, and the Nets have James Harden, who got to the line 10 times on Saturday while playing on one leg; and while shooting reigns, the Bucks are led by a superstar who lacks shooting touch. But the degenerative effects of the time-crunched 72-game season, after the shortest offseason in history, leveled the playing field.
First, Harden re-injured his hamstring in Game 1, but the series turned when Kyrie Irving sprained his ankle in Game 4, turning the attention of the Bucks’ many-headed defensive monster onto Durant alone. It would be a war of attrition from there, an environment ripe for P.J. Tucker.
Tucker is a signal: If you want to figure out who the most dangerous offensive player in the league is, just check who Tucker is being asked to guard. It used to be LeBron. Last year, it was Anthony Davis. This year, it’s Durant.
The notion of any defender stopping those players has produced some memes at Tucker’s expense, but he knows he fights battles he’s meant to lose, that Durant is supposed to burn him. He’s just trying to handle the onslaught one-on-one, losing the battle to win the war.
Tucker knew he’d get the Durant assignment on the final play of regulation. He thought Durant would step back or take a shot off one foot. “The spin threw me off,” he said. “That shot was incredible.” All he could do was laugh.
Tucker’s job was to make a man who needs no space feel suffocated. When he didn’t slither through screens, he crashed into them, like he knew one extra second was all Durant needed to get his feet set. The guys setting the screens for Durant were aware of this fact too, so as Tucker chased with more physicality as the game wore on, the screens got harder. It’s a vicious cycle that leaves everyone bruised and tired.
With just under two minutes left in overtime, the physicality Tucker helped initiate took him out of the game. He fouled out trying to get around a screen set by Blake Griffin. On the next possession, Griffin fouled out.
The goal of physicality, contest after contest, is to slowly erode the concentration and body control of the league’s best players. Tucker was out, but he knew he could pass the baton to Holiday.
On the game’s final possession, Durant had the ball in transition. He walked it up and passed to Harden, who passed it back. Durant played 141 of the final 149 minutes of the series. Harden, who rushed back from a Grade 2 hamstring strain after Irving got hurt, played 139. Neither had the energy to get to the rim. Two of the league’s best scorers had both admitted they were out of moves.
“That seemed like the longest game ever,” Tucker said. “It seemed like we just were playing for hours, like it was like a boxing match, like it just wasn’t going to end.” Giannis Antetokounmpo was huffing and puffing and limping by the end, wagging his finger “no” at the bench when the coaching staff asked whether he needed a break, picking up Harden and Durant on switches in the second half.
One got the sense that the series simply had to end here, that another overtime would make the players crumble before our eyes. Durant practically did, turning around with a foot on the line again, and air-balled a shot over Holiday.
“I’m hurting,” Tucker continued. “That was a battle every single night. I don’t know if I’ve ever put that much every night—emotionally, physically. That’s why the days seem so long. It was like one long continuous day of seven games. With a player like Kevin, there’s no time off. You can never relax.”
Every single Buck had a hand in tiring him out. His exhaustion was a team effort, a symbol of the power of their defense. The Bucks scored just six points in overtime, but the Nets—the NBA’s best offense in the regular season—scored only two.