Kevin Durant played all 48 minutes in Brooklyn's Game 5 upset victory against the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday. He was the first player to do so in a postseason game since LeBron James in 2018. It's a fitting bit of trivia for Durant, who has spent practically his entire career chasing James for the unofficial title of greatest basketball player on Earth. It's a race he famously acknowledged in a 2013 interview with Sports Illustrated.
"I've been second my whole life," Durant told Lee Jenkins. "I was the second best player in high school. I was the second pick in the draft. I've been second in the MVP voting three times. I came in second in the Finals. I'm tired of being second. I'm not going to settle for that. I'm done with it."
He might have been done with it, but it took the rest of the basketball world years to catch up. Durant's decision to join the 73-win Golden State Warriors in 2016 almost disqualified him from contention for "best in the world" status. How could a player fairly be compared to his peers when he got to play with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green while they didn't? Even as Durant won titles with the Warriors, the degree of difficulty was so low in the minds of fans that James was still the consensus choice.
He was probably still the correct one at the time. He became the first player in NBA history to average a triple-double in the Finals during his 2017 loss to Durant, but his 2018 run cemented him as the superior all-around player. Without Kyrie Irving, he astonishingly took a team of role players back to the Finals by leading the Cavaliers in points, assists, steals and blocks during the postseason. When he came face to face with Durant in the Finals, he dropped 51 points, eight rebounds and eight assists on Golden State's home floor, losing only after J.R. Smith infamously forgot the score in the final seconds of regulation.
Nothing could have better encapsulated the perceived difference between the two. Durant didn't even need to lead his team in scoring to get the victory. LeBron scored almost half of Cleveland's points and assisted on many of the others … but his teammates botched his victory, and it wasn't just Smith. George Hill had to miss the free throw that Smith rebounded. The Cavaliers shot 3 for 16 on 3-pointers that James passed into. Merely getting that team to the Finals was an accomplishment Durant couldn't even match by winning them.
It fit their styles to a tee. Durant's world-class scoring has always been his calling card, and seeking out elite playmakers and spacing only ever enhanced it. James has been similarly active in surrounding himself with talent, but not as successful. He never has had three All-Star teammates, nor has he played with another MVP in his prime. He hasn't needed to. LeBron's all-around brilliance has allowed him to lift inferior players to heights Durant never needed to. Until Tuesday.
Kyrie Irving sat out Game 5 against the Bucks with a sprained ankle. James Harden made his long-awaited return from a hamstring injury that was clearly still bothering him. No more superstars making his life easy. For once, Durant had to rough it as James so often has, and once and for all, he silenced all those who suggested he couldn't by putting together a performance that even James himself has never matched.
Durant became the first player in NBA history to score 45 points, pull in 15 rebounds and dish out 10 assists in a playoff game. He did so on 69.6 percent shooting, the third-highest mark ever in a 40-point playoff triple double, according to ESPN Stats & Info. It was the ultimate melding of what has made Durant great for his entire career and what led most to believe James was even better, near-flawless scoring paired with excellence in every other facet of the game while his teammates floundered beside him. Durant carried his team to an inexplicable victory, and he did so by doing just about everything a player can do on a basketball court.
He didn't even take a breather. Like James in the past, his team knew that they couldn't afford to let him.
It was the last question Durant's critics could lob at him, and it has been answered. Durant can carry a weak team as brilliantly as he can enhance a great one. Ironically, Durant moved past No. 2 by proving what he could do without a typical No. 2 option. He solidified his standing as the NBA's best player by winning with a roster unworthy of such greatness.
James will surely have something to say about Durant claiming his crown next season. Luka Doncic and Kawhi Leonard have made cases for it themselves this postseason. But for the first time in his career, Durant will be warding them off from the top of the mountain rather than chasing them off it.