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When Brooklyn Nets All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving went down on Sunday afternoon holding his ankle, the entire NBA world looked and wondered what would the Nets do without him. Then as the Milwaukee Bucks went on to tie their Eastern Conference Semi-Finals series at two games apiece and Irving left the arena on crutches, NBA fans started to wonder if this would end the Nets season.
Even without both Irving and his All-Star backcourt mate James Harden, the Nets still have sharpshooter Joe Harris, key role players like Blake Griffin and Jeff Green and one major player.
That major player is their $164 million dollar franchise player, Kevin Durant. As the Nets enter Game 5 without both superstars, it’s Durant who has not only the pressure of leading his team to a victory, but having a legacy-defining moment sitting on his 6 foot 11-inch shoulders.
Durant, who shot 9-25 in Sunday’s loss and has missed 33-53 shot attempts in the past two losses, has to now carry the largest load in his career.
The last time he had a playoff moment like this was in 2013 when his 59-win Oklahoma City Thunder had the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs and lost in five games to the Memphis Grizzlies. That team lost Russell Westbrook in Game 2 of the opening round and even though Durant averaged 28 points and 11 rebounds a game in the series, he shot a poor 41.7 percent from the floor and was chased around by the “Grit-and-Grind Grizzlies” team lead by Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.
But that was eight years ago and Durant was 24 years old. Since then, he’s won two NBA championships, two Finals MVP awards and won countless playoff games. This current situation was what the Brooklyn Nets brought him in for when they signed him to a maximum contract after tearing his Achilles in the 2019 NBA Finals.
The player known as “Slim Reeper” lives for these moments. In 23 career Game 5’s, Durant averages 27.6 points per game and shoots 45.3% from the floor. His teams on the other hand, haven’t done so well. They are 13-10 in those same games.
Even though his success hasn’t been the team’s overall success, a player’s entire career narrative can change with one performance.
One can go back to LeBron James against the Detroit Pistons in the playoffs in 2007, Michael Jordan’s Game 5 (“The Shot”) against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 1993 playoffs, or Kobe Bryant’s Game 4 vs. the Sacramento Kings in 2001 Western Conference Finals. Those moments were signature moments that not only won games but changed the fortune of championship teams.
On Tuesday night, Durant has a chance not only to step up for his team but for his franchise and legacy. Leading his team to victory at home would allow the Nets to rest both Irving and Harden for at least Game 6 in Milwaukee. That extra rest time would hopefully allow them to play in a potential Game 7 at home on Saturday night, giving them at least six more days of rest.
For a potential future first-ballot Basketball Hall of Famer, winning this game and putting on a legendary performance could lead to silencing doubters who have been criticizing Durant since he left the Oklahoma City Thunder after the 2016 season.
A loss and continuing to struggle will put even more pressure on one of the NBA’s elite players and force his team in a potential season-ending game on the road for a crucial Game 7. An epic performance would put some of the questions about him leaving the Thunder and not being able to win big games without superstars to rest.