The Brooklyn Nets signed Kevin Durant two years ago, fresh off the torn Achilles he suffered in the NBA finals, because they believed he could lead them there. Tuesday night, with Brooklyn's season on the line in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Milwaukee Bucks, Durant proved the Nets' faith in him was well-placed.
Durant had arguably the best performance of his career Tuesday night, finishing with 49 points on 16-for-23 shooting to go along with 17 rebounds and 10 assists while playing 48 minutes in Brooklyn's 114-108 victory over Milwaukee to give the Nets a 3-2 lead in this best-of-seven affair.
"I didn't even think about nothing but just each possession," Durant said afterward. "I was trying to win each possession, and I didn't think of how many points I had or shot attempts, rebounds, assists.
"It was more so like, 'Just let me do what I need to do each possession.' That's the approach I always take."
What Durant needed to do on every possession in this game for Brooklyn was, well, pretty much everything. With Kyrie Irving out for Game 5 -- and who knows how much longer -- with a sprained right ankle he suffered in the second quarter of Game 4, and Harden on the court for the first time since suffering a hamstring strain 43 seconds into Game 1, it was going to take a special Durant performance for Brooklyn to win.
And a special performance is exactly what Durant delivered. He told Nets coach Steve Nash early in the game, after Milwaukee jumped out to an early lead, that he could stay in if Nash needed him to. So Nash, smartly, decided to leave Durant out there, as he helped Brooklyn eventually crawl its way back from a 16-point halftime deficit to regain control of this series.
"It's ridiculous what he's able to do," Nash said. "We know he's capable of nights like this, but to do it tonight ... we lose [Irving], James obviously is going through his ailments, we're down bodies, we're wounded. And for him to have that toughness, that mentality, that's what makes him one of the all-time greats.
"This is a performance that's a signature performance for Kevin, and it was beautiful to watch."
It wasn't quite as beautiful for the Bucks, who left Barclays Center in defeat for the third time in this series. But unlike Games 1 and 2, when Brooklyn dominated for the vast majority of both contests, it was Milwaukee that was in control of this one for much of the night.
The Bucks jumped out to a double-digit lead in the first quarter and maintained a comfortable cushion well into the third quarter. But Brooklyn was able to keep the game in reach thanks to a sensational performance from Jeff Green, who had 27 points in 35 minutes off the bench, including going 7-for-8 from 3-point range, and 17 points and another three 3-pointers from Blake Griffin, before Durant took over in the fourth quarter.
While Milwaukee held an 87-81 lead after three quarters, the Bucks scored 21 points in the fourth. Durant, meanwhile, scored 20 himself in the fourth, including a tough 3-pointer as the shot clock was expiring with 50.5 seconds left that gave the Nets a four-point lead.
"Just keep making it tough," Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo said when asked how the Bucks could try to slow Durant down. "Obviously one of the best scorers to ever play the game.
"It's tough. He's the best player in the world right now, and we've got to beat him as a team. We've got to guard him as a team, and we've got to make him make tough shots, like tonight, and we've just got to keep doing our job, and hopefully he's going to miss. But we've got to keep doing our job, keep guarding together, keep showing help, keep making it tough, keep picking him up full court.
"We have to just keep containing him as much as possible, but at the end of the day, he's done an unbelievable job. Best player in the world, best scorer in the world. ... There's going to be nights where he's going to do what he did tonight and have 50, and there's going to be nights that we're going to try to contain him as much as possible and give ourselves a chance to be in the game and be in position to win the game."
The Bucks held Durant to just 20-for-53 shooting in Games 3 and 4 in Milwaukee. But after Milwaukee was able to be aggressive guarding Durant in those games, the officials called a tighter game in Game 5, resulting in Durant taking 16 trips to the foul line, and both Jrue Holiday and P.J. Tucker -- the two primary defenders against Durant -- picking up some early fouls.
Holiday, in particular, expressed frustration afterward about the calls against him.
"I had three fouls in the first half, [Tucker] had 2, Giannis had 2, and I feel like a lot of those aren't equal, or the same, on both sides," Holiday said.
Still, Milwaukee had its chances. With 15.6 seconds left, Antetokounmpo, who had 34 points and 12 rebounds in 42 minutes, fumbled a pass from Middleton that, had he caught it, would've led to an easy dunk to tie the score.
Instead, Durant grabbed the loose ball after Antetokounmpo dropped it, sank both free throws and sent Brooklyn on its way to a win.
"I just wasn't able to get my two hands on it," Antetokounmpo said. "Great pass by Khris, I messed up that play.
"But at the end of the day, I can't focus on that. That's in the past. We lost the game. Got to focus on Game 6, hopefully we can be in the same position as a team and if Khris makes the same pass I can grab it and finish the play. But we have to focus on Game 6, got to get one at home, protect home."
The Nets were able to protect home in Game 5, just as each team has done through the first five games of this series. And Brooklyn was only able to do that because Durant happened to have perhaps the greatest game of his legendary career exactly when his team needed it the most.
But as the Nets head to Milwaukee to try to close out the Bucks in Game 6 on Thursday night, Durant was simply looking forward to getting back on the court once again.
"To be honest, I don't even rank or look at performances," he said. "Once they happen, I just try to move on and see if I can do it again. It was a fun game to be a part of. There's a lot of games in my career that I felt like were just as fun. I'm sure when I reflect on it we can talk about it again, but for now it was great that we got the W."