Kevin Durant Refuses to Let the Brooklyn Nets Lose

By Patrick Hayes   June 16, 2021 

Kevin Durant Refuses to Let the Brooklyn Nets Lose

The Brooklyn Nets have the best big three in basketball, with Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. But during the regular season and into the playoffs, they’ve operated less like a big three and more like a team that always has a superstar in reserve when inevitable injuries occur.

The trio only played eight regular season games together after Harden was acquired in late January. In the playoffs, all three were on the court together for the entire 5-game series win over Boston, but once the second round started, that streak lasted only one minute into their matchup with Milwaukee as James Harden re-aggravated a hamstring injury early in game one, then Irving sprained his ankle in game four and was out of the lineup in game five. 

With Harden out in games three and four, the Bucks took advantage and got back into the series with two straight wins to tie it 2-2. Most impressively, Milwaukee had grounded one of the most potent offenses in the NBA. The Nets, even with each star missing significant stretches of time in the regular season, were still the second-highest scoring team in the league all year. The Bucks held them under 100 points in their two straight wins, though. With Irving out, Harden’s status unclear, two straight losses, and Milwaukee seemingly rolling, things looked bleak for the Nets.

They got bleaker when Harden played in game five, but clearly wasn’t fully healthy. He was able to make plays for others with eight assists, but his mobility was not what it normally is and his shot was way off. He shot 1-for-10 overall and missed all eight of his three-pointers. 

Jun 15, 2021; Brooklyn, New York, USA; Brooklyn Nets power forward Kevin Durant (7) controls the ball against Milwaukee Bucks power forward P.J. Tucker (17) during the first quarter of game five of the second round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs at Barclays Center. Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Nets found themselves down big early, trailing by 14 after one and 16 at halftime. Brooklyn continued to hang just close enough to make Milwaukee uncomfortable, though, and eventually made a run in the second half, thanks mostly to their one healthy superstar, Durant.

Durant finished the game with 49 points on 16-for-23 shooting. He also had 17 rebounds, 10 assists, three steals, and two blocks in one of the most dominant playoff performances in NBA history. He made a contested three with less than a minute left to seal the game.

Perhaps most impressively, Durant didn’t leave the court for a single minute, playing all 48 minutes. That’s a huge accomplishment for a player who has spent the entire season minutes restrictions due to his recent history of serious injuries. The last time a player played every single minute of a playoff game was LeBron James in 2018.

It’s not that the Nets didn’t want to rest Durant. They just couldn’t. 

“What can I tell you, it’s not ideal,” Nets coach Steve Nash told ESPN after the game. “But if we didn’t play him 48, probably weren’t winning tonight. It’s a tough decision; it’s an easy decision that’s very tough to make.”

Nash and Durant also created what will surely be an iconic meme after the game. More important on the court, though, is the performance has already raised questions about what Durant can do for an encore in game six on Thursday given his heavy workload on Tuesday. TNT’s Reggie Miller even suggested the Nets should rest Durant in game six, take their chances with Harden leading the way, and have a fully rested Durant in game seven. Miller was roasted on social media for that opinion, but with high profile injuries being a common peril across the league this season and rest crucial for players like Durant who have major injury histories, it is definitely fair to question what he’ll look like in game six.

One change he should expect is to see more of Giannis Antetokounmpo defending him. Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer was widely criticized for not matching up Antetokounmpo, last year’s defensive player of the year and one of few players in the league with the mix of length and speed to bother shots from the lanky Durant, on Durant down the stretch. With Milwaukee’s season on the line, expect that to be a big change in game six.

The Nets also got a big boost from Jeff Green, who has also dealt with injuries this postseason. He had 27 points and shot 7-for-8 from three-point range, which was particularly important with Harden struggling. 

Brooklyn will need Durant to come close to replicating his dominance in game six to close out the series, and they’ll also need a better performance from Harden with Irving likely to still be unavailable. But Durant putting the Nets in a position to be closing out the series on Thursday after their struggles in games three and four is impressive and reminded everyone that he’s capable of anything on the court.

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