NEW YORK -- Among Kevin Durant's many gifts is his ability to simplify things. Often, during media sessions, he swats back questions about the storyline of the day, particularly when that storyline is a problem that his Brooklyn Nets might face. "It's just basketball" is a common refrain, one he repeated on Monday when discussing the prospect of having no other stars on his side in Game 5 of their second-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks. All the Nets had to do, he said, was execute their game plan on defense and "just hoop."
Answers like this can sound flip, but watching Durant play makes them totally understandable. Durant is armed with a jump shot that can render any storyline, scheme or supposed stumbling block moot. It turned out that the Nets would sort of have two superstars on the court at Barclays Center on Tuesday, but James Harden was physically unable to play like one. Brooklyn made just four field goals in the first quarter and trailed by 17 points in the third before Harden made his first basket. All this did was make Durant's immediately legendary, perhaps career-best takeover more awe-inspiring.
Durant's stat line -- 49 points, 17 rebounds, 10 assists, three steals and two blocks -- is unprecedented in a playoff game, but the two most mind-boggling numbers might have been his 23 field goals attempted and 48 minutes played. When he won the Most Valuable Player award seven years ago, Durant averaged 32 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.5 assists in 38.5 minutes. In the second half of Game 5, he had 31 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.
"It's ridiculous what he's able to do," Nets coach Steve Nash said after the 114-108 win. "I think we know he's capable of nights like this, but to do it tonight -- we lose [Kyrie Irving], James obviously is soldiering through his ailments, we're down bodies, we're wounded, and for him to have the toughness, the mentality, that's what makes him one of the all-time greats. This was a performance that -- a signature performance for Kevin. And it was beautiful to watch."
"I was just trying to win each possession," Durant said. "And I didn't think about how many points I had or shot attempts or rebounds, assists. It was more so like just let me do what I need to do each possession. And that's the approach I always take and I was able to rack up some points. I did play every minute, so, you know, that helped with my point total."
Durant assisted on four of Jeff Green's seven 3s. He fired a perfect pass from the post to the opposite corner to get Landry Shamet an open 3 and found layups for Blake Griffin and Bruce Brown. He blocked a Khris Middleton pull-up and a P.J. Tucker floater. He got downhill on pick-and-rolls and isolations and earned 16 free throw attempts. It was as complete a game as you could hope for from a future Hall of Famer who had pledged he'd be "prepared to do everything out there, just like any night." In the fourth quarter, though, Durant drilled six jump shots, all off the dribble, all over a poor Buck's overmatched arms. He is so good at shooting that it's amazing he bothered getting good at anything else.
Green, who entered the league alongside Durant with the Seattle SuperSonics in 2007, said it is "routine" to see him take over like this. "He put us on his back and he carried us throughout the whole game," Green said. "That's what he's been doing. That's Kevin. That's the Kevin I know."
That a remotely sane person could use the word "routine" to describe such a showing is part of Durant's power. There is a certain confidence that comes with knowing he is on your team. It's not just that he attracts attention and creates open shots, it's that he relieves pressure. The Nets want their set plays to generate good looks, but they don't have to run anything more complicated than a Durant isolation to get one. It is easier to play freely and to keep your composure when you know that, with three seconds left on the shot clock on a frenetic possession, you can find him near halfcourt, where he can take one dribble to his right and drill a contested 26-footer, as he did over Middleton in the game's final minute.
If you are playing against Durant, you play every possession knowing that he can run off 10 quick points at any moment, that you can play flawless defense and there's a good chance it won't matter a lick, that the best you can ever hope for is to make him work harder than normal, to prevent him from getting layups, dunks and uncontested shots. If you are playing against Durant, you know that you might work extremely hard to build a lead and he might erase it without seeming to break a sweat.
"I mean, honestly, yeah, K.D. had a hell of a game, and there wasn't really much we could do better [against him]," Milwaukee's Jrue Holiday said.
The Bucks lost their lead a few minutes into the fourth quarter, and, to their credit, they didn't fold. They had a chance to tie it when Antetokounmpo dropped a pass from Middleton with 18 seconds left. Antetokounmpo missed a turnaround over Harden and a we-dare-you 3 in the final five minutes, but otherwise was intent on bullying Brooklyn in the paint. The 2019 and 2020 MVP finished with 34 points on 14-for-22 shooting, 12 rebounds, four assists, two blocks and a steal, an effort that will be forgotten because Durant's was so clearly superior. Antetokounmpo even called Durant "the best player in the world" post-game -- multiple times.
"It's tough," Antetokounmpo said. "He's the best player in the world right now, and we gotta beat him as a team, we gotta guard him as a team. We gotta make him make tough shots, like tonight. And we just gotta keep doing our job, and hopefully he's going to miss."
To hear them tell it, the Nets' identity is rooted in adaptability. Durant, Irving and Harden have still barely played together, and the rotation around the constellation of stars (and Joe Harris) has always been in flux. Nevertheless they have done their best to develop what Nash frequently refers to as "an understanding" -- of how to play off each other, how to maximize everyone's strengths, how to solve problems collectively.
Even in the playoffs, they are at once trying to foster a sense of cohesion, learn about themselves and do whatever is necessary to win the game in front of them. Brooklyn started the second half with a different lineup than the one that started the game, and the team that shredded the Bucks down the stretch looked nothing like the one that stumbled through the opening quarter.
After a win against the Phoenix Suns in April, Griffin said they had some difficult stretches but were able to "find it," like they usually do. Nash used the same phrase on Tuesday.
"Obviously we struggled for large parts, you know, a lot of things going on, trying to balance so many things amongst our group that are just difficult, and so we had a tough start," Nash said. "We even had a tough start to the second half, and we kind of implored them to do what we've what we've preached to them all year, and they started to find it."
Durant personifies Brooklyn's shapeshifting better than anybody, with the height of a center, the handles of a point guard, scoring ability rivaled by at most a handful of wings in the history of the sport and a willingness to operate on or off the ball. The way in which his team best reflects him, though, is its conviction. It is impressive that Harden picked the Bucks apart with his passing after taking 27 minutes to make his first shot, but, to Brooklyn, it is by no means surprising. Same goes for Durant's outrageous outburst of offense and the Nets eventually finding their flow. If you don't believe that a game like this will turn, then it will not.
It's not just Durant who has been deflecting questions on Zoom. All season, his coach and teammates have been dismissing a wide variety of concerns that no one on Earth was thinking about when Durant had the ball in his hands in crunch time. The Harden trade prompted a conversation about how much playmaking and star power a team needs and it increased the volume on an already vigorous debate about Brooklyn's defense. At one point, the Nets supposedly didn't have enough big men; at another, they had too many. Through all of it, they were consistent about a few things: Sacrifice is a part of the deal, they are on a mission to win a championship and they are a work in progress.
A title is by no means guaranteed, and, up 3-2, neither is a trip to the conference finals. But in a tight playoff atmosphere, you want the guy with the unguardable jump shot. Simple as that.