Imagine a fire hydrant, unrooted from the ground, floating near you at all times. This hard, dense object moves as you move—if you try to run into it, to end the madness of its stalking, it simply moves accordingly, staying in the annoying zone rather than allowing your contact. It’s a big one, too, as far as fire hydrants go; not as tall as you are but about seven inches shorter, though it is much wider and heavier. How would you like to play basketball with such a phantasmic presence in your life?
Kevin Durant, after bearing the best of P.J. Tucker’s defensive effort in Game 4 of his Brooklyn Nets’ second round playoff showdown with the Milwaukee Bucks, is now closer to knowing this experience than anyone alive. He probably wasn’t too fond of it. The two opponents, close friends off the court, combine for a study in contrasts: one is a global superstar and a historically elite all-around player; the other, a journeyman role player who was drafted in 2006 but ended up in Europe for much of his career, having to re-make his style of play to get back to the NBA in 2012, becoming over five years in Israel, Greece, and elsewhere the personified molasses who also previously led Durant to uncharacteristic postseason struggles in the 2018 Western Conference Finals.
In Game 5 of Bucks-Nets, however, the battle of The Sludge King vs. The Slim Reaper faded into the background as Durant put Brooklyn on his back in a 114-108 comeback victory. Durant's performance was one of the greatest that professional basketball has ever seen: he played all 48 minutes, collecting 49 points on 70 percent shooting, with 17 rebounds, 10 assists, and defense much better than his 3 steals and 2 blocks adequately demonstrated. He was shooting and moving the ball with unseen precision, and sharing his gravity and intelligence with teammates when he was off the ball, telling them when and where to cut as he screened for them. He made a wide variety of difficult shots in high-leverage moments. It was a basketball game that—if it were to not have happened, and was instead fictionalized—might get a writer fired.
There was tremendous catharsis in Durant’s play, given its happening after the second major injury of the series for the Nets—a badly rolled Kyrie Irving ankle, which may keep him out for the rest of the postseason. The outpouring after his difficulties against Tucker also informs the state of alarm for the Bucks, who have failed to capitalize on the dismal state of the Nets’ overall medical status, not to mention on the considerable advantages they have over Brooklyn even when both teams are at full health. The Bucks are bigger and stronger, welcome to mismatches at almost any moment, and they have much more continuity than the microwaved Nets, to boot.
None of it seemed to matter in the second half of their latest loss. Having dropped the first two games of the series by playing too soft and scared in Brooklyn to seemingly even remember their playbook, the Bucks were able to get fierce, yet still dumb, in a fraught Game 3 conquest at home, and then finally hard and smart in their Game 4 win, the edge of which lasted into much of the first half of Game 5. But as Durant and the Nets gradually erased a 16-point deficit over the course of the second half, it became clear that the existentially petrified version of Milwaukee basketball had made its unwelcome return.
Though their body language was not quite that of a poor man whose last dollar is pinched between two broken fingers as a hurricane forms around him—an apt description of how they comported themselves during their 39-point Game 2 loss—the Bucks did appear too shaken by Durant’s unflinching excellence, and how it rallied his supporting cast, to recall their basic actions. Frozen on offense and looking unsure and reluctant as they settled on suboptimal shots taken after little movement on or off the ball, the Bucks let themselves become far too defendable after a half in which it looked like they could have almost anything they wanted, with a modicum of patience and discipline.
This bewildering, frustrating Jekkyl and Hyde act is exemplified by the Bucks’ star player: two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. No one has ever been so good at basketball while having such a scant sense of how to play it. The Waluigi to Durant’s Mario, Giannis is a bizarro universe version of a world-class basketball player. A beyond perfect physical presence, Antetokounmpo’s big game hunter aggression leaves his body in the most important moments, and he transforms from an unsolvable strategic problem into an inexplicable curiosity of physics, flailing on center stage.
With the Nets up 3-2 and the series heading back to Milwaukee for a potential goodbye-to-the-Bucks contest, there is no safe money to be found in predicting what happens next. The ultimate messy series at the end of a chaotic, pandemic-wrecked season of basketball, Brooklyn vs. Milwaukee is a gnarly feast of weirdnesses difficult to digest, and even harder to explain. This is basketball upside down and sideways, and then punted somewhere even stranger by the foot of God.
Durant’s superiority may prove the throughline to solid and understandable ground, but he also might have a hauntingly tough time against a bit player again. Or Harden could become more comfortable with his tender hamstring, and blow the whole thing open by being more than the hilariously effective—and underexploited, from the Bucks’ perspective—decoy that he was in Game 5. He could also injure it much more tragically, bringing a funereal sense to the series. Something less foreseeable than any of that could also come to pass, like the scoring ballast of Jeff Green’s seven Game 5 three-pointers, which made it possible for Durant to haul his team to victory. But if whatever happens in the next game is similar to anything we’ve seen before, then it won’t be at all like what we’ve gotten from this series so far.