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Kevin Durant Saved the Nets with Perhaps His Greatest Performance

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJune 16, 2021

Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant (7) watches as he sinks a 3-point shot during the fourth quarter of Game 5 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks, Tuesday, June 15, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Kevin Durant has an MVP and two Finals MVPs. He's fifth in NBA history in career points per game and third in career playoff points per game. Among players with at least 100 minutes in the Finals, he's the leader in career Finals box plus/minus (yes, ahead of Michael Jordan and LeBron James).

And yet, he may have reached a new individual height in Tuesday's 114-108 win over the Milwaukee Bucks.

With Kyrie Irving out with an ankle injury and James Harden hobbled by a recovering hamstring, Durant played all 48 minutes. His final line defies logic, especially for someone who ruptured his Achilles in the 2019 Finals:

Forty-nine points (on 16-of-23 shooting), 17 rebounds, 10 assists, three steals, two blocks and plus-six.

"We're down bodies. We're wounded," Steve Nash said after the game, seemingly trying to process what he'd just witnessed. "For [Durant] to have the toughness, the mentality, that's what makes him one of the all-time greats. It was beautiful to watch."

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Same, @SteveNash 😂 https://t.co/AipkuFDAYU

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Almost any description of that performance will come up short, but a simple "beautiful" probably comes as close as anything.

After shooting 37.7 percent from the field in Games 3 and 4, talk of P.J. Tucker's physicality bothering Durant was everywhere.

"I thought it was borderline non-basketball physical at times, but that's the playoffs." Nash said after Game 4. "You have to adapt and adjust."

We've likely never seen so effective an adjustment.

Durant ruthlessly attacked every matchup he faced, including Tucker. In Milwaukee, there were times when KD got frustrated with the contact and lack of foul calls. The action was, in some ways, being dictated by the Bucks.

On Tuesday, Durant was the aggressor. He shot as many free throws (16) as he did in Games 3 and 4 combined. And when he wasn't getting fouled, he was rising and firing with confidence over the top of every contesting hand.

The three-point dagger he hit over Middleton with less than a minute to play even drew a display of emotion from the typically cool-as-a-cucumber Durant.

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KEVIN DURANT ARE YOU SERIOUS?!?! https://t.co/ddoUtbxPNm

When asked about his absurd night at the end of TNT's broadcast, Durant was predictably deferential. 

"I wasn't planning on playing every minute," he told Jared Greenberg. "Jeff Green was incredible tonight. James coming out here and thugging it out for us."

Both certainly deserved some love. Green had 27 points and went 7-of-8 from three (his only miss was his last attempt). Harden gutted it out on a sub-100-percent hamstring to total eight assists. Blake Griffin added 17.

But make no mistake, this was a bail-out performance from KD. At one point, the Bucks were up 17. With Irving out and Harden missing almost everything (he finished the game 1-of-10), it would've been easy for Brooklyn to fold. KD refused.

This was a reminder that he can get to heights that may be out of reach for everyone else left in the playoffs. And the fact that he can still get there as a 32-year old with an Achilles tear in his past is almost unfathomable.

Prior to this explosion, Durant's best playoff game score ("...a rough measure of a player's productivity for a single game," according to Basketball Reference) was 39.6. Tuesday, he registered a whopping 50.4.

Damian Lillard (55.9 earlier this postseason) and Charles Barkley (52.6 in 1994) are the only players with higher marks on record.

As accomplished as Durant is, this may well have been the best single-game performance of his career (his career-high game score in the regular season is 44.3).

And if it was the series swinger in a year that ends with a title (very much up in the air, of course), it will be an indelible piece of his legacy. Durant has those two Finals MVPs, but there was always a sense that was Stephen Curry's team.

Bringing a championship to the Nets, fresh off a devastating injury, could bring validation and a strong argument for top-10-all-time status.

There's a long way to go. Stars are still standing in the East and the West, including Kawhi Leonard, who has plenty of heroic playoff moments himself.

But in the highest leverage games, possessions and moments, it's tough to pick anyone other than Durant.

  

Stats provided by Stathead and Basketball Reference.

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