It was a tale of two superstars last night in Brooklyn as the Nets rallied from an early 17-point deficit to take a 3-2 series lead over the Milwaukee Bucks with a 114-108 game five victory in round two of the NBA Playoffs.
Kevin Durant came through with one of the greatest performances in playoff history as he finished with 49 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists while playing the entire game and leading his Nets to the win. He became the first player in playoff history to total 45-plus points, 15-plus rebounds and 10-plus assists in a game. Going 16-23 from the field and adding 3 steals and 2 blocks, the 32-year-old truly played flawless basketball on both ends. It was surely the greatest postseason performance by an all-time great who has played in 149 playoff games, won two titles and owns the third highest scoring average in playoff history.
Bucks’ superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo's statline will look impressive with 34 points on 14-22 shooting, 12 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks, but, in arguably the biggest game of his career, the two-time NBA MVP was nowhere near good enough. Down the stretch, once again, the 26-year-old faded. With the game tied at 104 and just under two minutes remaining, Antetokounmpo found himself isolated in the post against a hobbled James Harden. Backing down Harden, who literally opted to keep the single-coverage by waving off Landry Shamet’s double team, Antetokounmpo put up a limp fadeaway jumper off the rim instead of attacking the basket. However, the miss did not bury the Bucks as, with under twenty seconds remaining and Milwaukee down by two, Khris Middleton fed Antetokounmpo with a pass right in his chest that he fumbled away, essentially ending the game. Antetokounmpo may have literally fumbled the season away as the Nets, who were without Kyrie Irving and playing with a probably-shouldn’t-even-be-out-there James Harden in game five, just need to win one of the next two games to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.
While many expected this all-important game five to be a battle between the two superstars, we really never saw it. Antetokounmpo, who was the 2020 Defensive Player of the Year and was, just hours earlier, named to the All-Defensive First Team for the third year in a row, was nowhere to be found when it came to guarding the red-hot Durant. While Durant torched P.J. Tucker, Khris Middleton and Pat Connaughton to the tune of 31 second half points, Antetokounmpo was planted in the corner on the ice-cold Joe Harris. While part of this is coaching, and trust me, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer deserves as much of the blame as Antetokounmpo is getting, you would still expect an elite defender/two-time MVP/bonafide superstar to take the initiative in a playoff game and demand that he gets at least an attempt to slow down Durant.
Regarding Budenholzer, between the failed defensive approach on Durant (the double team came far too late, no Antetokounmpo, etc.), the refusal to attack James Harden on defense and the insistence on playing through Giannis rather than Middleton or Jrue Holiday in crunch time, he needs to be coaching for his job in game six on Thursday. Many expected “Coach Bud” to be fired after the Bucks’ flopped in the second round of the 2020 playoffs while making little-to-no adjustments and, playing against this injury-depleted Nets team, it feels like déjà vu. Therefore, while Antetokounmpo needs to be substantially better, the onus falls even more on the Bucks’ coaching staff.
ESPN’s Zach Lowe summed game five up perfectly. Kevin Durant played one of the best games in NBA playoff history, but still, the result of the game was decided more so by Antetokounmpo and the Bucks’ failures than his dominance.
Looking forward, the Bucks will have a chance on Thursday to win at home and force a game seven. After 48 minutes played and an all-time-great exertion of energy, it will be worth monitoring just how much Durant can recover with only one day off. Considering he is already back to being the best player in the world just two years removed from a torn achilles, I like his chances to be ready and raring to go in game six. While Antetokounmpo and the Bucks’ problems will extend far beyond this series and, if they’re lucky and this isn’t the end, this season, there has to be adjustments to their approach for guarding Durant and their late game strategy.
In game six, once again, all of the pressure will be on Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. It is such an overused cliché and I hate to use it, but his young legacy may truly be on the line. If the “Greek Freak” plays another incomplete game and cannot get the Bucks back to Brooklyn for game seven, we will have to reevaluate exactly how we rate the two-time MVP who would then have just one career Conference Finals appearance in six playoff runs. Simply put, he better show up on Thursday, because we know Kevin Durant will.