MILWAUKEE — Kevin Durant deserves a pass for Game 6, no questions asked. It is a remarkable concession, really, for a superstar athlete who blew an opportunity to close out a playoff opponent in these win-or-else times, but that was the defining truth of Bucks 104, Nets 89.
How could any human being who delivered 49 points, 17 rebounds, and 10 assists over the full 48 minutes in Game 5 be expected to rise to the same otherworldly level a couple of nights later, on the road, while performing above the safety net that is Saturday night in Brooklyn, where the Nets are undefeated in the postseason?
Maybe Durant convinced you it was possible by the way he handled the immediate aftermath of Game 5, in the Barclays Center Zoom room, where he wore the look of a man who had just enjoyed a pleasant meal with colleagues, or who had just finished a good book he was eager to recommend to friends. Under his “New York Robbery” cap, Durant’s expression was one of mild contentment, certainly not awe.
But predictably enough, neither the franchise player nor the franchise showed the same competitive fire Thursday night in Fiserv Forum. Durant finished with 32 points and 11 rebounds but committed seven turnovers. It was simply too much to ask the man to do it all over again in the Bucks’ backyard, and that’s OK, as long as KD is KD again Saturday night.
Nobody gets a free pass in Game 7, not even one of the greatest NBA players of all time.
As Durant prepared for Game 6, basketball fans everywhere wanted to know one thing: What would he do for an encore? It’s hard to believe anyone would be asking that question given where Durant was only two years ago, after his Achilles’ exploded on national TV. Coaches, scouts, and executives knew he would return as a fairly significant force to be dealt with.
But how many thought KD would return as KD? Or as an even more dynamic version of his former, two-time champion self?
The league has never seen a player quite like Durant. In a sport forever pumping up listed heights, the 6-10 Nets forward seems a good two inches taller even before he extends his 7-5 wingspan. A man that size has never been so ankle-breaking quick with his crossovers, and so lethal on his jump shots from deep.
“It’s ridiculous what he’s able to do,” Steve Nash said.
Especially after suffering such a devastating injury in the 2019 Finals. “Surgery was today and it was a success,” he would write on Instagram next to a photo of himself in a New York hospital bed. “EASY MONEY.”
A perfect nickname for a near-perfect basketball player. The Nets and Knicks wanted him badly, even with the 2019-20 season already written off. Durant’s agent and father both happened to be fans of the Manhattan-based entry in the derby. After Knicks executives Steve Mills and Scott Perry engaged the father, Wayne Pratt, in a pre-free agency video call, according to Matt Sullivan’s new book, “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” Pratt told his angry son, “The Knicks is Mecca. …If you want to be a New Yorker, be a Knick!”
Never mind a Knicks backdoor play best described as Tampering 101: Durant wasn’t one to do what people told him to do. In 2016, after the critics advised him not to sign with Golden State, he signed with Golden State. Three summers later, after his dad effectively told him the Nets were counterfeit big-city goods, Durant signed with the Nets.
Over time, with Durant and Kyrie Irving missing so many games, and with Julius Randle developing into a star, the Knicks embraced a “maybe we dodged a bullet” storyline.
How’s that storyline working out for the Knicks now?
Honestly, while sitting in Barclays Center as Durant delivered his staggering Game 5 performance, it was natural to wonder how a Madison Square Garden crowd would’ve reacted to it. Chances are, the response would’ve made the noise inspired by Larry Johnson’s four-point play in ’99 sound like polite golf-tournament applause.
But Durant didn’t want the Knicks, and he sure as hell didn’t need the Knicks. Nash was asked if Brooklyn’s KD is superior to Golden State’s KD, a two-time Finals MVP. “It’s really hard to say if he’s better now than then,” Nash said. “I would say it’s even remarkable there’s a conversation about that.”
That conversation quieted down Thursday night, when Giannis Antetokounmpo was the better man. “Bucks in seven,” the fans chanted in the end. Removed in the final minutes with the other starters, Durant unworthy this time of the full 48.
That’s understandable. He earned his free pass in Game 6.
He doesn’t get one in Game 7.