He will break your heart, every time. He is what he does. You can fight and scratch and scratch from 20 points back; the Cavaliers did it Tuesday night. He can sneak the deficit into single digits, with enough time on the clock to dream; the Cavs did that too. The Cavs were outgunned, outnumbered and outgunned for three and a half quarters.
Yet here they were.
And it didn’t matter.
Because Kevin Durant plays for the Brooklyn Nets, so he wasn’t going to let the unthinkable happen under his watch. He wasn’t going to let the Cavs pull off an absurd comeback, he wasn’t going to let his team have to endure a unique challenge on Friday night.
Three times, just as the Cavs were beginning to have fun ideas, he blasted them with critical baskets and allowed the Barclays Center to roar and his teammates to breathe. He broke the spirit of the Cavs and then he broke their hearts. It’s what he does.
“That’s as advertised,” Nets coach Steve Nash said after the Nets defeated the Cavs, 115-108, to secure a playoff date with the Celtics; Game 1 between the second-seeded C’s and the seventh-seeded Nets will be on Sunday.
For most of the night it was Durant’s running mate, Kyrie Irving, who lit up the party in Brooklyn. He connected on all 11 of his shots through the third quarter. He finished with 34 points and 12 assists, missing just three of his 15 shots.
“They are superstars,” Nash said. “It’s what the best players do.”
The Cavs had cut the Nets’ lead to 88-82 when Darius Garland hit a 10-footer with 8:43 left; it was the closest the Cavs had come since the first quarter, but Durant quickly hit a corner 3-pointer to extend the lead to nine. Later, when the Cavs fell back to 99-93, Durant hit straight 16-footers to extend the Nets’ lead to 103-93.
And that was it.
Durant finished with 25 points and 11 assists. Irving may have taken the fans’ breath away; Durant was the one who restored it when things started to look a little dangerous. It’s what he does.
“We knew they would throw a lot of different defenses at us, try to slow us down,” Durant said. “It’s going to take a lot of effort for 48 minutes every game. We’ll see what happens.”
Forget everything that bewitched, annoyed and baffled the Nets this season. There’s been a reason to tune in every night to watch them play for, well, at least 55 days and nights anyway, plus Tuesday night. Kevin Durant is that reason.
Nothing else has gone according to plan during this three-year chapter. The Nets were quickly excused from the bubble in 2020. James Harden worked his way up here, came in and played well, got disillusioned, worked his way out, all in the space of 14 months. Irving has been injured, has not been vaccinated and is unavailable. The Nets were going to win 60 games this year. They decided at 44 and needed a good run of 12-5 at the end to get there.
Through it all, Durant has been magnificent.
Through it all, Durant has been the only thing the Nets can count on, game after game, night after night, crisis after crisis. He was assigned a rookie coach and all he has done is help make Nash’s job easier for him. He was given a couple of supporting stars in Harden and Irving who were chronically unreliable and a third, Ben Simmons, who has yet to suit up for the Nets, and continued to play at an almost unimaginably high level.
Through it all, Durant has remained, at age 33, at worst, the third or fourth best basketball player on the planet, averaging 29.9/7.4/6.4 and a shooting average of .518/.383/.910.
(One man’s list, for kicks and laughs: 1. Giannis Antetokounmpo; 2. Nikola Jokic; 3. Durant; 4. Joel Embiid. I’d vote Jokic for MVP, though.)
Durant’s own choice might surprise you.
“If I had to choose, it would go to Joel Embiid,” Durant said. “He led the league in scoring, double-doubles, his team won 50 games this year. The numbers were incredible. It’s a great year. But you can close your eyes and take any of the top six or seven, and you can have a good MVP this year. That shows how big our league is right now and how talented our league is from top to bottom.”
Among those six or seven, of course, is Durant, who has constantly brushed off the various and sundry problems that subvert the Nets’ mission, who simply makes them better by stepping on the court and breaking the other team’s heart. It’s what he does.