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

Kevin Durant etches name among NBA's greatest showings

Few playoff performers have ever reached the heights Kevin Durant achieved with his 49-point, triple-double masterpiece against the Bucks.

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

Full Focus: Durant dominates to carry the Nets past the Bucks.

They don’t hand out rings for the kind of game Kevin Durant had Tuesday night. But they do write history.

And chisel statues. And craft legacies.

Hall of Famer Bill Russell didn’t show up with the trophy they named after him in the wake of Durant’s performance for the ages, because he and his Brooklyn teammates aren’t even halfway to the 16 victories it takes to emerge on top from the postseason. Still, NBA greatness can shine through at any point in the playoffs with the right combination of circumstances, urgency and achievement.

When the challenge and the response line up the way they did for Durant in Game 5 of the Nets’ Eastern Conference semifinals series against Milwaukee, well, it’s like that line in the old Western: When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

Durant etched his name among some of the league’s most impressive and memorable individual nights ever, carrying Brooklyn to its 114-108 victory and a 3-2 series lead over the Bucks. With his numbers alone – 49 points, 17 rebounds, 10 assists, three steals, two blocks and 16-of-23 shooting – he broke new ground. No one in history – not Michael Jordan, not LeBron James, not Wilt Chamberlain, not anyone else – ever put up at least 45 points, 15 boards and 10 assists in an NBA playoff game.

Yet it was so much more than statistics. Durant saw what the Nets needed with two-thirds of the team’s Big Three hobbled, after consecutive losses and a sense of things slipping away, and with Milwaukee determined to prevent from happening exactly what happened.

So he went out and got it for them. Across 48 minutes, in fact, playing every tick of the clock to secure the victory. That’s what little margin for error Brooklyn had until the very end, with Kyrie Irving (ankle sprain) out and James Harden (hamstring tightness) an unknown as he tried to play for the first time in 10 days.

“It’s ridiculous what he’s able to do,” Nets coach Steve Nash said of Durant. “We knew he was capable of nights like this, but to do it tonight… We miss Ky, James obviously is soldiering through his ailments. We’re down bodies, we’re wounded. And for him to have the toughness, the mentality. That’s what makes him one of the all-time greats.”

Inside the NBA: Durant puts on performance for the ages, sinks Bucks

Here’s something else: As much as modern stars like to gang up to spread the workload and the pressure, it’s almost always a singular, signature performance that earns them the greatest acclaim. What Durant did Tuesday probably will earn him more respect over time than the two championships he won by hopping aboard Golden State’s established dynasty in 2016.

About his work in this one, Durant said: “I didn’t even think about nothing but just each possession. I was trying to win each possession, and I didn’t think about how many points I had or shot attempts or rebounds or assists. That’s the approach I always take, and I was able to rack up some points. I did play every minute, so that did help with my point total.”

Of all the stats, the NBA’s biggest stars are acutely aware of their playing time. Especially at age 32, 14 seasons in, and only 45 games removed from the Achilles injury that snuffed his previous playoff appearance and wiped out his entire 2019-20 season.

Durant had averaged 39.4 minutes in the series’ first four games, but finding eight or so to sit him down in Game 5 was going to be a problem from the start. Finally in the second half, Durant said, Nash and assistant coach Jacque Vaughn seemed to realize how far they were pushing him.

“[They] just asked me if I needed a couple, that they were going to take me out,” the 6-foot-10, 11-time All-Star said. “And I was like, yo, if y’all don’t need to, I’m cool. I think I can kind of tough it out from here.”

Durant scored 31 of his points in that second half, including 20 in the fourth quarter as the Nets chased down and ultimately embarrassed the Bucks. The visitors had led by as much as 17 midway through the third quarter.

By the end of that period, Brooklyn had pulled within 87-81. Durant was dominating with 11 points, six rebounds and five assists in the third alone.

See, the Bucks might have been all right if Durant had checked only the sharpshooter box for which he’s best known. That can happen when you win four scoring titles in five seasons, as he did from 2010 to 2014. He’s not viewed as a triple-double guy the way James or Durant’s old pal Russell Westbrook is – until he needed to be Tuesday.

“I know the perception of me is that I can score the basketball well,” Durant said. “But any team I’ve played on, I’ve been asked to do pretty much everything from rebounding to defending to initiating to scoring. I might not do it all the time, but I do a little bit of everything out there.”

Felt like a lot to Milwaukee. Knowing for a fact that Durant was going to be central to everything the Nets could muster, the Bucks only occasionally crowded and stifled him defensively (just as they didn’t exploit Harden’s limited mobility as a defender nearly enough).

“He was unfazed the entire game,” said Harden, whose return was a mixed bag with 1-of-10 shooting (0-of-8 on 3s) but six rebounds, eight assists and nearly 46 minutes logged. “He was poised, especially in that second half. He started to take his time, he started to get to his spots. I seen Kevin directing people to where he wanted them to be. Once Kevin gets that – like, he’s comfortable, he’s in the zone – it’s pretty hard to stop him.”

Durant seemed to read the game in the first half, facilitate like a point guard in the third quarter, then slip into his familiar assassin’s role in the fourth. He scored 20 points in the game’s final 12 minutes, the biggest share of Brooklyn’s 33 and nearly as many as the Bucks managed (21) as a group.

Other Nets were helpful in stretches of varying length. Well-traveled Jeff Green, who was a rookie with Durant in Seattle (Seattle!) in 2007-08, shared the scoring load with 24 of his 27 points through the first three quarters. Blake Griffin had 17 by then, Nash shutting him down for the fourth. Landry Shamet’s six points in the fourth were more than every Milwaukee player except Giannis Antetokounmpo.

But this was Durant’s night, start to finish. His biggest basket came with 50.5 seconds left, Brooklyn about to get zapped by the shot clock until he slipped loose from Khris Middleton to hit from 26 feet. That took a one-point game to 109-105. Only once from there did Milwaukee get the ball with a one-possession gap – and at 109-107, Middleton’s short pass in the paint bounced off Antetokounmpo’s hands.

“I messed up,” the Greek Freak said. Then he praised Durant for playing “the perfect game almost.”

Durant wasn’t inclined to rank Game 5 or any of his performances. “Once they happen, I just move on and see if I can do it again,” he said “That was a fun game to be a part of, but there have been a lot of games in my career I feel have been just as fun.”

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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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