Around two years ago, Kevin Durant showed us all who he exactly is.
And still, several were slow to realize just what kind of basketball player he has truly become.
But no one was prepared to see what he was willing to do – what he was willing to sacrifice – in order to win. This is the same Durant who wanted to play with a calf strain in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals. The same Durant, whose love for the game and whose desire to help his team at any cost, paid what was construed at the time as the ultimate price.
Naturally, everyone had doubts. Will Durant ever be the same? Will he ever return to being the ultimate scoring machine, the kind that gets whatever he wants, wherever he wants, whenever he wants?
Even a Durant who was only at 80% of his pre-injury form would’ve been considered a success. Being north of 30, there was some drop-off expected. His jumper – silky smooth and automatic – would still be there. His high release point would offset any difficulties in terms of verticality. A game predicated on skills and guile rather than physicality and athleticism would age him gracefully enough, even if he never truly returned to his peak version.
But just like how everyone took him for granted – how we all took him for granted – we were once again blind to the kind of player Durant really is.
Durant is a fighter. He will do whatever it takes, to his own potential detriment, to not disappoint his teammates and his fans. Most of all, he will do whatever it takes to not disappoint himself.
In a crucial Game 5 against the Milwaukee Bucks, with the series tied 2-2 during what was considered an inflection point, the same person whose career was jeopardized the moment he planted his right foot two years ago in Toronto did not see a single game second on the bench. Durant once again showed little concern for health, fatigue, or any of that jazz.
What we got was 48 minutes of pure, unadulterated basketball from a pure hooper.
While Durant mostly took matters into his own hands, the Bucks made things easy for him and much, much harder for themselves. They have been filled with plenty of head-scratching moments throughout these series. One of them has been a persistently consistent theme.
You just cannot do this against one of the best jump-shooters on the planet:
The difficulty of guarding Durant using any kind of scheme is an understandable conundrum. No matter what you throw at him – traps, shows, strong-side overloading, or stepping up to the level of ball screens – he will find a way to destroy it, either of his own volition or by setting up his teammates.
But dropping back – even slightly – and letting Durant step into a mid-range jumper is akin to letting Durant eat whatever he wants at the buffet.
It should come to no surprise that Durant has been otherworldly in the mid-range. During the regular season, he shot 51% on mid-rangers – 93rd percentile, per Cleaning the Glass. In the playoffs, that has slightly increased to 52%. The shot is mostly there for the taking, and there is little that most defenders can do to bother him.
While the Bucks mostly shot themselves in the foot with their questionable coverages, Durant helped point the gun and emptied the clip. No matter who was placed in front of him – including the rough-and-tumble defender that is PJ Tucker – Durant found innumerable ways to put the ball in the hoop.
It’s almost a futile endeavor to nitpick every little mishap the Bucks commit on defense against Durant. Mistake or no mistake, Durant will get his points. Sometimes, it’s a matter of making him bleed for them.
Sometimes you force Durant to take the toughest shots possible – and true to his inevitable nature, all you manage to draw is a proverbial drop of blood:
Or you comfortably let him step into pull-up threes, the kind that Durant has drilled in high-stakes situations in the past. There is no room for confusion if you’re the defense. Give him even a sliver of breathing room – the Bucks gave him plenty – and not even a drop of sweat will be drawn from him, let alone a drop of blood.
Durant will take whatever looks he can get, especially with no Kyrie Irving to share the scoring burden and James Harden still being limited by his hamstring injury. The Bucks are cognizant of that – but it’s difficult to stop a man who has been successfully sniping from long range (27-of-63 on threes in the playoffs, good for 42.8%).
Coupled with the fact that this version of Durant – more basketball-wizened and having spent a considerable amount of time in the past within an egalitarian, pass-heavy offensive scheme – knows the importance of setting up others, the Bucks found themselves having to deal with not only a scoring buzzsaw, but also the underrated vision and playmaking chops.
From the simplest but most effective of reads – kick-out passes when collapsing the defense on dribble-drives:
To finding cutters and threading passes through small pockets and windows:
And finding the holes in the Bucks’ weak-side defense. Peep at Pat Connaughton in the possession below – he sags off the weak-side corner to help on a potential Durant drive. With Khris Middleton in no position to capably “split the difference” – that is, zoning up between the corner and the wing – Durant whips the skip pass to Landry Shamet in the corner and makes the Bucks pay.
Durant did everything he could, and most importantly, he did it within the flow of the game. He measured coverages, determined the best course of attack, and executed to the highest degree. While there were moments of individuality and one-on-one possessions, it felt natural rather than forced.
On the defensive end, Durant gave a sublime effort, equaled only by his sublime and often understated ability as a defender, both on the ball and most especially as a help-side and rotational presence who serves as the last line of defense.
It was emblematic – poetic, even – that Durant garnered a triple-double: 49 points, 17 rebounds, and 10 assists, on 70/44/81 shooting splits and 81.6% true shooting. He was the Nets’ jack-of-all trades who dangled his mastery over everyone.
Durant has defied expectations surrounding his post-Achilles-rupture career. With every single jumper he makes, every assist he dishes out, and every stop he garners on the defensive end, he continues to pile upon a legacy that is, by all means and purposes, bulletproof.
It took 48 minutes for Durant to remind those who had forgotten who he is. But even those who thought better were in for a surprise of epic proportions. Those who recognized his greatness and accorded him his proper due didn’t expect to see this Durant – defiant in the face of a setback that has claimed several primes and has cut careers short – raise his level of play to a point beyond what is perceivable by mere mortals.
We all thought we knew Kevin Durant. We all thought he was what he was, that there was no other level left for him to ascend to.
We were all wrong. – Rappler.com