2021 Playoffs: East Semifinal | Nets (2) vs. Bucks (3)

All eyes on Kevin Durant as Nets enter Game 5 undermanned

With two of its superstars hobbled, Brooklyn will likely need a dominant outing from Durant to handle Milwaukee.

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

How will Kevin Durant's role change due to injuries? Chuck, Shaq and Kenny describe their expectations for Game 5.

Already down two superstars, the Brooklyn Nets understandably might want to swath Kevin Durant in the latest of their seemingly endless uniform variations Tuesday night: the Bubble-Wrap Edition.

With Kyrie Irving (ankle sprain) ruled out and James Harden (hamstring tightness) questionable for Game 5 of the Nets’ Eastern Conference semifinals series against Milwaukee, Durant could go it alone as Brooklyn’s healthy Big One trying to stop his team’s skid at two games. (Editor’s Note: Harden was upgraded to questionable before the time of this publish.)

Durant, who pressed to carry the Nets over the final 2 ½ quarters after Irving got hurt in Game 4, met the situation with a shrug Monday afternoon, as Irving’s and Harden’s statuses were being confirmed.

“I might have to handle the ball more, might have to post up more, come off pin-downs more,” the Nets’ sharpshooting thin man said. “I’ve just got to be prepared to do everything out there, just like every night.”

Coach Steve Nash talked about his team relying too heavily on Durant once Irving was lost Sunday, which sounded like a challenge to teammates such as Joe Harris, Blake Griffin, Bruce Brown and the rest whose combined salaries are about what one of the Big Three hauls in.

“This does not fall to Kevin,” Nash said. “This falls to the Brooklyn Nets.”

The obvious spin for Nash and Nets fans in this predicament is that they’re used to it. Durant, Harden and Irving were together for just eight regular season games, in stints totaling about 200 minutes. On nights when Durant was in the starting lineup without the other two, Brooklyn went 5-1.

Nash called that a possible “silver lining.” “It’s that we’ve continued to win games this year regardless of who’s been available. We’ve been able to adapt on the fly.”

It’s hard to imagine the Nets winning Game 5, though, or the two more it needs to survive this round without something special from Durant. Something that might stand alongside great individual playoff performances in league history, such as Michael Jordan’s 63 points against the mighty 1986 Celtics, LeBron James keeping Miami’s SuperFriends out of the wringer in Game 6 against Boston in 2012, Allen Iverson’s Game 1 explosion vs. the Lakers in 2001 or Magic Johnson stepping in for injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 1980 Finals clincher.

That’s a tall order to do on command, of course. For context, back in 2013 when Durant still was with Oklahoma City, teammate Russell Westbrook went out with a knee injury in the first round. Durant and the Thunder were able to close out the Harden-led Rockets, but against Memphis in the West semifinals, the Grizzlies handled them in five games.

Steve Smith says it will be an uphill battle for Brooklyn in Game 5. Who needs to step up?

One star rarely is enough at this time of year, not across multiple games. Milwaukee now is able to load up defensively on Durant, without any potent scorers beyond Harris (if hot from 3-point range) or Griffin in a throwback performance to spread the Bucks thin. And with P.J. Tucker fully incorporated into their way of doing things.

Tucker is the bruising 3-and-D veteran acquired at the March trade deadline from Houston. Starting now in place of injured Donte DiVincenzo, the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Tucker was the tip of the spear of the Bucks’ more physical defense in Games 3 and especially 4.

When Durant averaged 34.7 points and 9.3 rebounds against Milwaukee in three regular-season meetings, Tucker wasn’t around for the first and came off the bench for 43 minutes total in the other two. He was on the court for 29 minutes Sunday, and in the time he was matched up on Durant, the Nets star scored nine points on 3-of-12 shooting with a pair of turnovers.

Tucker is effective because his strength gets into the taller man’s legs and body before Durant gets the ball, but he moves well enough to keep up with Durant. In 58 playoff games in his career, regardless of his matchup or minutes, the burly Tucker never has fouled out. He had – or as coaches like to say, “used” – five in Game 4.

Without James Harden and Kyrie Irving, can Kevin Durant pick up the slack and lead Brooklyn in a pivotal game?

“The fouls that he did get called for, they were definitely fouls,” Bucks wing Khris Middleton said of Tucker. “And the ones that he didn’t get called for, I really don’t think they were fouls. He did a great job of showing his hands and letting Durant just try to play through his body.”

The other side of all this is the pressure it puts on the Bucks to capitalize. They still have to win a game at Barclays Center and every day the series lasts is a day Irving, Harden or both heal a little more.

Meanwhile, Nash did what playoff coaches have done since time immemorial, probably dating back to the Knicks’ Joe Lapchick complaining that George Mikan was hacking Max Zaslofsky.

Nash griped after Game 4 about Milwaukee defenders (Tucker) playing “borderline non-basketball physical,” not so much to analyze what happened as to plant a seed with officials for Game 5 and beyond about what might happen.

They’re the ones who ultimately will determine how much bubble wrap Durant has in his Brooklyn uniform.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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