When the Brooklyn Nets departed last week to Milwaukee to play the Bucks in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semifinals series, they had a 2-0 lead and clearly looked like the better team. The status of James Harden, who re-injured his right hamstring—the same injury that had him sidelined during the close of the regular season—43 seconds into Game 1, was concerning.
Brooklyn’s return home to Barclays Center for Game 5 on Tuesday was surrounded by a sense of urgency. Milwaukee had turned the series around, winning both games at home, tying it up at 2-2. The Nets suffered another setback when Kyrie Irving sprained his right ankle in the second quarter of Game 4.
The No. 2 seeded Nets and No. 3 seeded Bucks, the two highest scoring teams during the regular season, were now facing a pivotal Game 5 back in Brooklyn with Milwaukee holding an advantage with Harden and Durant hobbled.
The spotlight was now on Durant, a two-time Finals MVP and already an all-time great player. If the Nets had any chance of retaking the series lead, Durant would have to be a superhero, give his team a performance of the ages. The 32-year-old, 13-year veteran, who missed the entire 2019-’20 season recovering from Achilles surgery, did his best to be a new Marvel character.
With James Harden back in the starting lineup but obviously limited in his movement, Durant scored 49 points, grabbed 17 rebounds and had 10 assists to carry the Nets to an improbable 114-108 win.
“He’s the best player in the world right now and we’ve got to beat him as a team,” said Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Buck First-Team All-NBA forward. “We’ve got to guard him as a team. We’ve got to make him make tough shots like tonight. We’ve just got to keep doing our job and hopefully he’s going to miss.” With the Nets down 59-43 at halftime, Durant, with a huge contribution from forward Jeff Green off the bench, cut the lead to 87-81 at the end of the third quarter as the Bucks offense stalled.
The fourth quarter presented the same issues for Milwaukee. Missed free throws, turnovers and ill-advised three-point shots. The game came down to the final minute with Durant making a difficult, contested 28-foot three from above the top of the key with the shot clock running down off an assist from Harden to put the Nets up 109-105 with 50.5 seconds left.
The Bucks, down 109-107, still had a chance but Antetokounmpo, who finished with 34 points and 12 rebounds, fumbled a pass from Khris Middleton under their basket with 15.6 remaining and the Nets held on.
“The world is witnessing once again who is the best player in the world,” said Green, who shot 7-8 from behind the three-point line and scored 27 points, about Durant’s remarkable game in which he shot 16-23 from the field, including 4-9 on threes and 13-16 from the foul line. Durant had 20 points in the fourth quarter when it mattered most.
“Historic, historic performance,” remarked Nets head coach Steve Nash. “He played the entire game. He hardly missed.” For his part, Harden showed great mental toughness in logging 46 minutes. He was just 1-10 and 0-8 from 3 and ended with five points. The Nets can clinch the series when they face the Bucks tonight in Game 6. Game 7 will be Saturday in Brooklyn at the Barclays Center if necessary.