By Lenn Robbins
How’s this for beautiful irony?
Kevin Durant spent the better part of the last two years assembling the NBA’s latest version of a Big Three championship team. But with the season hanging in the balance – and last night’s Game 5 Eastern Conference semifinal playoff was as close as it gets to an elimination contest – Durant eschewed the team concept for the most epic playoff performance of his career.
Durant scored 49 points, one shy of his playoff high, on 16-of-23 shooting from the field and 13-of-16 from the line, to go along with 17 rebounds and 10 assists in a 114-108 come-from-behind win over the Bucks in Barclays Center. He scored 50 points in 42 minutes in a 2019 playoff game against the Clippers but this effort was superior for two reasons.
Had the Nets lost this game, they faced the daunting prospects of having to win Game 6 Thursday in Milwaukee. That 2019 was to clinch. And without Kyrie Irving (sprained ankle) and a limited James Harden (hamstring), Durant went the entire 48 minutes. Load management, did you say?
“I wasn’t planning on playing every minute but as the game started to flow, we got down, I told coach, if you need to take me out for a couple it’s cool, but I feel good,” said Durant. “He just let me ride it out.”
No. The Nets didn’t let Durant ride it out. They rode Durant.
The Nets trailed by as much as 17 and were down 76-60 midway through the third quarter when Durant imposed his well and unmatched skill on the game. He scored on driving layups and pullup jumpers. He scored from the line and was 4-of-9 on threes.
“It’s ridiculous what he’s able to do,” said Nets coach Steve Nash.
Durant’s most sensational, and important shot, came with 50.7 seconds left and the shot clock winding down. Durant rose from a few feet beyond the arc and drained a 3 over his nemesis, P.J. Tucker, that gave the Nets a 109-105 lead.
The most emotion Durant showed came with 11.5 seconds left when he missed the first of two free throws. Durant is such a perfectionist in search of perfection on this night in Barclays Center, he yelled an expletive. Twice.
Durant was not perfect. That was his only shortcoming.
“This is a signature performance,” Nash said. “It was beautiful to watch.”
Harden struggled in his first game back after missing the previous two. He missed 9-of-10 shots and finished with five points but he gutted out 46 minutes. Jeff Green picked up the slack with 27 points. Giannis Antetokounmpo had 34 points and 12 rebounds but the Bucks head back to Milwaukee with two thoughts tormenting them:
They had a 17-point lead on the road and could have set themselves up for the clincher on Thursday night. And they have no answer for KD.