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Kevin Durant proves one superstar is enough

Two years on from an Achilles rupture that would have ended most careers, Kevin Durant refuted every question mark surrounding his legacy with a historic 49-point triple-double against the Milwaukee Bucks to swing the series back in Brooklyn's favour

BROOKLYN, NY - JUNE 15: Kevin Durant #7 of the Brooklyn Nets looks on during Round 2, Game 5 of the 2021 NBA Playoffs on June 15, 2021 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2021 NBAE (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

At the start of the third quarter in New York, the Brooklyn Nets found themselves down by 16-points. James Harden still hadn't scored.

The sharp-shooting Joe Harris, who can't seem to buy a shot since the opening two games of this series, was again 1-7 from the floor.

Other than Kevin Durant, only the veteran Jeff Green was in double figures for Brooklyn, while Milwaukee had Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday - in essence their own 'big three' - all off to relatively strong starts through the opening half.

The Nets were shooting 35 per cent from the floor, their opponents 54 per cent. At this point, it seemed the Bucks were cruising. Turns out if you cut off a couple of Cerberus heads then it is no more frightening than an oversized Andrex puppy.

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) reacts after dunking, next to Brooklyn Nets forward Blake Griffin (2) during the first half of Game 5 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series Tuesday, June 15, 2021, in New York. 2:12
Giannis Antetokounmpo scores 34 points and 12 rebounds in the Milwaukee Bucks' loss to the Brooklyn Nets in Game 5 of their NBA playoff series.

Two years on from a ruptured Achilles injury that would end most careers, these were dire circumstances for Kevin Durant. Not just in terms of this dramatic Eastern Conference semi-final series, which has fluctuated wildly from one direction to the next, but for the player's overall legacy.

This is the Kevin Durant that left Oklahoma City to join the super-team Golden State Warriors after losing the Western Conference Finals to that very squad of players just a month prior.

The same Kevin Durant who, despite answering critics with two straight NBA championships and Finals MVP awards, has been treated with something close to ambivalence, if not outright disdain by most basketball fans given the way he singlehandedly shifted the balance of power in the league with that almost universally-ridiculed free agency decision.

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The same Kevin Durant who did it again, despite an Achilles rupture that would keep him out for a full season, effectively telling the Brooklyn Nets in the summer of 2019: this is my team now. My good friend Kyrie Irving is coming, too.

Once again Durant had hand-picked the franchise he would make a perennial contender for the foreseeable future.

There were, of course, doubts from all corners that he would ever be the same player. After all, Achilles injuries have permanently reshaped the careers of the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay, Wesley Matthews, Elton Brand and even the late great Kobe Bryant.

Only Dominique Wilkins had ever made anything close to a full recovery. Now Durant has, too.

Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant reacts after sinking a 3-point shot against the Milwaukee Bucks during the fourth quarter of Game 5 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series Tuesday, June 15, 2021, in New York. 2:09
Kevin Durant scores 49 points, 10 assists and 17 rebounds in the Brooklyn Nets' Game 5 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in their NBA playoff semi-final.

From the opening game of the season against the Warriors, his first in 552 days, Durant has looked every bit his old, utterly un-guardable self. In fact, he has from the first moment he touched the ball, strolling into a three-pointer over Andrew Wiggins (something like his replacement in Golden State) and barely bothering the net as he stroked the ball home. Ah, there it was. That familiar swish sound again.

For the rest of the league, this was ominous. It became even more so when James Harden forced his way to Brooklyn in January and the NBA could do nothing other than take a collective gulp and brace itself for the latest dynasty in the making.

They ended the regular season with the second seed and single most efficient offense of all time - scoring 117.3 points per 100 possessions - even with a constant slew of minor injuries to their star players and a rookie head coach in Steve Nash. Whatever doubts there were didn't last long.

Brooklyn cruised past the Celtics in five games in the opening round, with only Jayson Tatum's best Michael Jordan impression offering any kind of resistance, before losing Harden in Game 1 against Milwaukee, shrugging, and going 2-0 up anyway by way of a 39-point evisceration of the Bucks in Game 2.

Giannis and Middleton both scored over 30-points and grabbed over 10 rebounds to force their way back into the series in Game 3, the only teammates to do so in the playoffs since Steph Curry and - yep - Durant in 2017, before Irving sprained his ankle in Game 4 to give Milwaukee all the impetus they needed to level things 2-2.

Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant, left, clenches his fist next to Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) in the waning seconds of the Nets' 114-108 victory in Game 5 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series Tuesday, June 15, 2021, in New York. 2:24
Take a closer look at Kevin Durant's heroic performance for the Brooklyn Nets in Game 5 against the Milwaukee Bucks.

So that's where we were last night, or at least where KD was, down 17 points without Irving and Harden struggling manfully alongside him, having clearly rushed back ahead of schedule fearing the worst.

To his credit, Harden battled for over 45 minutes despite not looking anywhere near fully fit. Maybe he needn't have bothered. From the third quarter on Durant took over, taking the ball up the floor, calling for a high screen and scoring bucket after ruthless bucket.

He went for 31 points in the final 18 and a half minutes of the game, including 20 in the fourth quarter. Not only that, Durant played every single second - and the only player other than LeBron James to do so in the playoffs - and scored or assisted on 74 of Brooklyn's 114 points.

You couldn't help but feel that each frictionless jumper, not only a dagger through the heart of Milwaukee, was aimed at all those down the years who had told Durant he'd taken the easy route to success. The short cut. The cheat option.

Forget the bullish tweets Kevin, this is the only answer they'll ever need.

1:05
Kevin Durant plays every minute of the Brooklyn Nets' Game 5 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks to take a 3-2 lead in their playoff semi-final.

By the time Durant hit back-to-back three-pointers from the top of the arc to give Brooklyn a 97-96 lead with just under eight minutes remaining, the Bucks probably knew it was over then and there. Durant had that look about him, the scariest look in sport, a Hall of Famer smelling blood in the water, and didn't blink even as the crowd roared unanimous approval around him.

The game's best scorers - Curry, Damian Lillard, Luka Doncic et al - will always react along with the audience after such a momentum-reversing slew of points. They will let all the emotion out. They will celebrate. They will revel in their own brilliance. Not Durant.

It's clear that whereas they play for the crowd, he plays only for himself, always quietly dispelling a point inside his own head, grimacing every time he checks the scoreboard and sees the other team in touching distance.

Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant (7) watches as he sinks a 3-point shot during the fourth quarter of Game 5 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks, Tuesday, June 15, 2021, in New York. 0:20
Kevin Durant scores a three-pointer to beat the buzzer for the Brooklyn Nets against the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 5 of their playoff series.

On a completely broken Nets play with 50 seconds left, he collected the ball off Harden on the run from half-court and with only three seconds left on the shot clock. He took two giant steps, pulled up over Khris Middleton and drained the three from a couple of feet beyond the arc to ice the game.

It's the shot we've seen so often, that levitating high-arc release like a crane, the shot bombing down through the net like the wrecking ball attached to the end of it. Afterwards, he could only tilt his head back and exhale. As much as an exclamation point as Durant is ever likely to make.

In the death throes of the game, the Nets forward collected a crucial defensive rebound under his own basket and had two free-throws to match a playoff career-high 50 points. Durant missed the first and in typically merciless fashion castigated himself, before then hitting the second to bring up 49, a new franchise record for Brooklyn.

He added 17 rebounds and 10 assists, becoming the only player with that stat-line in NBA playoff history. Nash hugged him at the final whistle and looked as though he might never let go. In immediate response to the 114-108 defeat Giannis described him as the best player in the world.

Durant himself will likely pay no attention to the fallout from this, one of the most fearsome scoring performances the NBA playoffs has witnessed. He should, however, take a moment to bask in the grand irony of it all. That the player unfairly ridiculed for teaming up with Steph Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, then Kyrie Irving and James Harden, did this alone.

Kevin Durant just proved he didn't need anyone all along.

Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden (13) defends Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton (22) as Middleton drives to the basket during the first half of Game 5 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series, Tuesday, June 15, 2021, in New York. 3:33
Highlights of the fifth game in the Eastern Conference semi-final between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Brooklyn Nets.

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