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It's now Kevin Durant and Steve Nash against hungry, desperate Bucks

·6 min read
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Anything is bound to happen in Milwaukee, from cringeworthy ankle sprains to fire alarms breaking out 15 minutes after a game.

What’s been unexpectedly birthed after Sunday afternoon is a playoff series. Sure, the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks have been at this for about a week already, but the results appeared clear before the ball of Kyrie Irving’s right ankle basically touched the hardwood at Fiserv Forum: The Nets were superior and on the verge of sending the Bucks to a summer of uncertainty.

It seemed the Bucks were learning gradual lessons but too little, too late — and then the playoffs did what the playoffs do every year, producing something random when Irving landed on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s foot, turning his ankle.

The Bucks tied their series against the Nets at two games each following a wild 107-96 final in Milwaukee with Game 5 back in Brooklyn on Tuesday.

With James Harden still in street clothes and Irving’s history of postseason injuries rearing its head again, it leaves Kevin Durant standing alone, with an inexperienced coach and teammates who’ll have to play above their heads for the foreseeable future.

The man doesn’t even have his bodyguard courtside, suspended after an overzealous reaction in Game 3.

Kevin Durant shoots over P.J. Tucker.
The Nets' Kevin Durant shoots over the Bucks' P.J. Tucker during the first half of Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on June 13, 2021. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

It’s irresistible, tantalizing to point to Harden as a potential savior. But his hamstring didn’t pop because the Nets were operating at a surplus, and it won’t recover quicker because the Nets are now at a deficit.

“I think it’s an independent case, I don't want James to be rushed back,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “If he's able to play next game and the game after, it’s fantastic. If he's not, I don't want to rush him back and jeopardize doing something worse or making this a long-term injury.”

And it’s been clear from the start, the Nets will not sacrifice future health for the gratification of the moment. So it leaves Durant, who was hounded by P.J. Tucker into his most inefficient performance of the playoffs and second straight showing that was below his Herculean standards, against a two-time MVP.

It’s likely he absorbed the classy “F*** KD” chants along with the more ambitious “Bucks in six” growl from the crowd in Milwaukee, during those precious moments when Tucker exercised a little social distancing, and figured out this Bucks defense is his next chore.

This Nets season has been mixing and matching, adjusting and reconfiguring, waiting and anticipating. Injuries have been part of their reality, so it isn’t necessarily new but they believed they were taking preventative measures in managing Durant, Harden and Irving.

Similar to the deposed champion Lakers, these Nets were built with the belief their great players would be great when it mattered most, with the supporting players needing to fill in the blanks.

With health, it gives you the ultimate big joker, the ability to escape from the most precarious situations but without it, the Nets don’t have the depth to withstand being without two stars in a series against a game opponent.

Even if Durant is indeed the baddest man on the planet.

Especially if there’s no sweat equity to help them through this rough patch, while enduring rougher treatment from the Bucks — who seem to have found something by way of bullying the Nets and being allowed to do it.

The Bucks don’t have that star dependency, not in the same way as the Nets. They’re deeper, more tested and when placing the rosters of available players next to each other, a better team.

And in Tucker and Bobby Portis, the Bucks have two players willing to get more than a little nasty, men who thrive on making your life miserable.

“You know, he's playing extremely physical,” said Nash of Tucker. “And they made it difficult. You know that's his role on their team. I thought it was borderline, non-basketball physical at times. But that’s the playoffs, you have to adapt and adjust.”

When the series shifted to Milwaukee and even after the ugly Game 3, the belief was the Bucks weren’t adjusting and their head coach, Mike Budenholzer, came into focus along with his job security.

Kevin Durant and Steve Nash talk on the sideline during Game 4.
Kevin Durant and head coach Steve Nash now must figure out how to beat a hungry, desperate Bucks team. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

That pressure now shifts to Nash to free up Durant. Too many times, the Nets tried to force him the ball to disastrous results, leading to the Bucks and Antetokounmpo getting out on the break.

To be fair, it’s a better play seeing what Durant can do than the Mike Jameses and Bruce Browns of the world, and after all, Durant is the reason why any of this even exists.

He’ll likely catch the jokes and the tweets if the Nets come up short, as if there’s precedent for any player losing his top two costars and triumphing. Durant is a made man, and doesn’t have to validate his greatness because like it or not, those two rings with Golden State don’t happen without him.

But this is where Nash has to earn his playoff bones. As a player, he’s been in series that ranged from shocking to emotion-filled to controversial, to various degrees of success. He’s endured Kobe Bryant game-winners and 50-balls, Robert Horry hip-checks and even his own uncontrollable nosebleeds.

He had far more agency in those spots than now, but he didn’t get in the way of his three stars figuring things out on the floor when they had the time, and generally, all the incarnations of this team have played hard this season, a credit to him.

But playing hard in the playoffs is the bare minimum — ask the team in Manhattan about relying just on effort.

“It's a series; now, it's a three-game series,” Nash said. “We've got an adverse season, a lot of things have happened to us. Just remain positive and that's what got us through the season.”

They’ll have to be smarter and judicious in how they use Durant as those minute totals keep creeping up toward the 40s.

Durant is capable of carrying any team to a win, even if Antetokounmpo’s team is built more capably for one that twists and turns.

It’s Durant and his coach against a cast of hungry, confident and damn near desperate Bucks showing little mercy.

That fire alarm might as well have been the Nets’ wake-up call — it’s never as easy as you plan it.

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