Kevin Durant has nothing more to prove, no validation necessary to show he belongs at the top of the NBA mountain, no asterisks and no questions.
But in a playoff where extraordinary performances have ranged from the new guard emerging to an old guard looking to navigate new territory, Durant delivered the signature performance of the postseason and possibly of his stellar career in Brooklyn's 114-108 win over Milwaukee.
It was almost like he sat and watched Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, while firmly being in it, reading the game and stalking the moment — waiting for the perfect time to strike.
“It did look that way,” Durant said. “I always try to be aggressive to get to my spots and I think that settles my teammates down as well. Like previous games, I may have forced a couple shots over two people when I could’ve thrown out for hockey assists.”
He defended the rim with his long arms, hardly fouling. Durant often located the open man — notably, Jeff Green — when everyone in Barclays Center was waiting on him to take over. It wasn’t just poise, or even maturity.
It felt like he was walking into a destined moment, nestling himself into both history and the moment in perfect harmony. Forty-nine points, 17 rebounds, 10 assists, three steals and two blocks later, an Ali-like flicker of fury removed all doubt — or should’ve.
“The world is witnessing, once again, you know, who the best player in the world is,” said Green, who aided Durant in hitting seven triples. “And it's amazing to see.”
For a man who played every minute and rarely was caught off-guard or in a spot of waned concentration, there was hardly sweat to be found. Durant told Nets coach Steve Nash and assistant Jacque Vaughn he didn’t need to rest for a couple minutes. “If we didn’t play him 48, we’re probably not winning tonight,” Nash said.
There was an air of inevitability as the game unfolded. Perhaps it was because of the Bucks’ recent history of failures, and current failure to put the Nets away, to let them hang around just a little too long.
But perhaps it was because the baddest man on the planet was coming off two off-nights by his standards and needed to unleash his entire arsenal.
He refused to get agitated when it was clear he would be the last man standing, that the trio he helped engineer wouldn’t be able to stand with him as he got one night closer to playoff elimination.
That should’ve been a sign.
He knew this would be a signature night where it all came together, even if the world saw it as a Kevin Durant “prove it” game.
The Milwaukee Bucks were the last ones to realize there was a storm a-comin’, maybe thinking with a hobbled James Harden and injured Kyrie Irving that it was their time, their moment and could ease their way to a Game 5 victory, preparing themselves for a close-out game in Milwaukee on Thursday.
They failed to deliver a decisive blow, and when the game got tight, it was obvious everyone was ill-equipped for the moment. Giannis Antetokounmpo graciously called Durant the best player in the game, a title Antetokounmpo could’ve taken a step toward earning had he seized the moment.
But there was Kevin Durant.
It was his masterpiece, his LeBron in the Garden, his Magic in Philadelphia as a 20-year old, his Michael in Salt Lake City, his Isiah on a swollen ankle in Los Angeles. It was two years ago when he looked to have this moment, in Toronto as a member of the then-champion Golden State Warriors, before his Achilles gave out.
You almost forget — and you wonder if the Nets did, too — when playing him every minute of a must-win contest, that his health should still be monitored, that fate shouldn’t be tempted by yet another franchise.
“It's a tough decision. It’s an easy decision, that's very tough to make.” Nash said. “And so I hate to put him in that position.”
But Durant deserved this spot, earning it by coming back from not only one but two injuries that could’ve been career-killers (2014 foot injury with the Oklahoma City Thunder) to be perhaps the best version of himself, an undeniable force no detractor can deny.
You could almost feel the moment rumble, when Durant started directing traffic to clear out things, when the Bucks couldn’t capitalize on the Nets’ lack of rhythm and confusion with Harden’s return.
The game was there for the taking, especially since he didn’t take his first shot of the second half until midway through the third quarter.
So he took it.
It felt like Durant had gotten lost in the game, and maybe lost by the coaching staff, as if they had to ask, “Where do you want the ball?”
“When do you want it?”
He saved Harden from himself with a buzzer-beating triple from 30 feet that produced his only emotion of the evening, stepped into clean threes made possible when the Bucks didn’t want to double him due to his earlier unselfishness.
Durant walked the game down, forcefully and calmly.
“We debate back and forth at times, you know, where we should get him the ball and how we can diversify that,” Nash said. “And sometimes it's just about being simple.”
Harden looked like he was hurting the team more than helping for the better part of 46 minutes, but even bringing the ball up court to keep P.J. Tucker from hounding Durant kept him fresh enough to produce an on-demand fourth quarter.
Durant’s night was so historic, so dominant that Harden going 1 for 10 and making some generally poor decisions late will be framed as one of bravery, and so great that a player with 34 points, 12 rebounds and four assists didn’t look like he belonged in the same league as Durant.
Durant has no more dragons to slay, all criticisms illegitimate — only one more game, after this game, to get halfway to another championship.
“I don't even rank or look at performances. Once they happen, I just try to move on and see if I could do it again,” Durant said.
We’ll be waiting.
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