NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 19: Kevin Durant #7 of the Brooklyn Nets reacts during game seven of the ... [+] Eastern Conference second round at Barclays Center on June 19, 2021 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The Milwaukee Bucks defeated the Brooklyn Nets 115-11 in overtime to advance to the next round. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)Getty Images
Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant made the impossible happen on Saturday night: He enhanced his legacy in a season-ending loss.
Durant had an NBA-record 48 points in Game 7. He played all 53 minutes.
And if his $150 KD14 sneakers had been size-17 instead of size-18, the Nets would’ve been heading to the Eastern Conference finals.
“My big ass foot was on the line,” Durant bemoaned to reporters after Brooklyn (6-1 at home in the playoffs) was ousted by the Milwaukee Bucks 115-111 in overtime at Barclays Center.
It was an inch. Literally a toe.
KD’s long jumper with 1.6 seconds left in regulation had made it 109-109 instead of 110-109. “I just saw how close I was to ending their season with that shot,” Durant said.
In OT, the Nets were gassed. They went 1-for-12 from the field, with their only basket coming from Bruce Brown. Durant missed his final six shots — including a contested airball from the top of the key for the tie with 0.3 seconds remaining. They had their share of leads. They had their shares of chances. This one stings.
“I don’t know what more Kevin could do. He was out of this world,” said Steve Nash, who in retrospect could’ve called timeout to give KD a break before the final possession.
Durant finished the playoffs averaging 34.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 4.4 assists in 40.3 minutes. He also played all 48 minutes in Game 5, finishing with that legendary 49-point, 17-rebound, 10-assist triple-double. But KD didn’t care about the numbers. Bottom line: The Nets had fallen short of their championship expectations. They’d certainly like to have the end of Game 3 and Game 7 back.
In the end, injuries cost them. Kyrie Irving (ankle) missed the final three games. James Harden revealed that he played Games 5-7 with a Grade 2 right hamstring strain. Harden also played All-53 in Game 7, coming up just short of a triple-double: 22 points, nine rebounds, nine assists. He shot just 5-for-17, though, including 2-for-12 from 3-point range. His efforts on one leg were risky and valiant.
He was limited. He was devastated. They all were. “They couldn’t have given us anything more,” Nash said. “I hurt for them more than anything.”
Between the regular season and playoffs, Durant, Irving and Harden logged just 332 minutes together over 14 games. The collective health of Brooklyn’s Big Three is going to be a legitimate concern moving forward.
The Nets’ supporting cast proved to be a mixed bag in Game 7. Blake Griffin posted 17 points and 11 rebounds in 40 minutes before fouling out. Brown had 14 points and six rebounds in 52 minutes. Joe Harris, though, had just 10 points while going 3-for-9 from 3-point range. Harris, the league’s leader in 3-point accuracy, connected on only eight of his final 33 triples during the series. “Had I played better we might be in a different spot,” Harris told reporters.
Meanwhile, Brooklyn’s bench played just 20 minutes total and didn’t score. Nash’s rotation spanned just seven — with the exception of the final play of regulation — in Game 7. His trust in his reserves clearly wasn’t there. This was live by your starters, die by your starters.
It was a strange ending to a strange year.
Early on, Spencer Dinwiddie suffered a partial ACL tear and never came back. Durant, however, returned to his all-world form after being sidelined for 552 days due to an Achilles’ injury. Meanwhile, Irving upset the organization during his two-week absence due to personal reasons. And Sean Marks went all-in to acquire Harden in a blockbuster trade on Jan. 14.
In search of his first ring, Harden brought vocal leadership and accountability. He was willing to pass-first and score second. Irving eventually returned and had the most efficient offensive year of his career. But hamstring injuries kept both Harden and Durant (who also had to deal with health and safety protocols) for extended periods. LaMarcus Aldridge also signed with Brooklyn only to be forced into sudden retirement due to heart issues.
Granted, Nash and his players handled most of the adversity with aplomb. Unsung heroes stepped up. Nic Claxton blossomed. The Nets secured the No. 2 seed, and steamrolled the Boston Celtics in the first round. Then Harden got hurt 43 seconds into Game 1 of Round 2, although Brooklyn took a 2-0 lead on Milwaukee anyway. But everything changed when Irving fell on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s foot in Game 4. It wasn’t meant to be.
Antetokounmpo finished Game 7 with 40 points and 13 rebounds in 50 minutes. Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday were invisible for the first three quarters before hitting big shots in the fourth and OT. Against’s Brooklyn’s Big 1.3, the Bucks were the better team.
It’s weird. Anything less than a title was supposed to be considered a failure. But this didn’t feel so much like a failure for the Nets as it did a massive missed opportunity. Everyone else was banged up, too, and the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers were out of the mix.
Of course, that doesn’t matter anymore. Brooklyn is halfway through its four-year max deals for Durant and Irving, with no trophies to show for it. Marks’ biggest priority will be reaching extensions with Durant, Irving and Harden — who all have player options for 2022-23. No reason to have any questions about their long-term futures with the franchise going into next season. No reason for the championship window to be one-and-done.
Free agents Griffin and Jeff Green were valuable veterans, and it makes sense to keep both of them. DeAndre Jordan, though, was a non-factor, and he still has two years left on his contract. Jordan is friends with Durant and Irving, but Marks could probably make better use of that roster spot. Dinwiddie is expected to decline his $12.3 million player option, and it would be a surprise if he’s back. The Nets, though, could get something in return if the motivated guard with a chip always attached to his shoulder goes elsewhere via sign-and-trade.
Restricted FA Brown will receive a significant raise from his $1.7 million wage. One former executive projected earlier this season the point-center could get in the $9-10 million range, but perhaps his ask could be even higher. Given the potential luxury-tax implications, Marks could have a tough decision to make with his valuable role player.
Brooklyn will ultimately have limited financial options to improve its roster — adding size, defense, rebounding versatility etc … — but the Nets can still sell prospective personnel on a title shot. And their front office has continually unearthed diamonds in the rough. That needs to continue give all the first-round picks and swaps that Marks surrendered for Harden.
On the coaching front, assistants Mike D’Antoni, Ime Udoka and Jacque Vaughn should all get interviews for head jobs elsewhere. It’s not going to be the same roster or the same staff. But the foundation is in place — and it’s ultra talented.
Health remains everything. A full training camp will certainly help. And expectations will remain the same. In the meantime, Kevin Durant will probably take some down time at an oasis of his choosing. “He’s still the best player in the world,” Antetokounmpo said. KD and his teammates went down. But not without a fight. In the end, it wasn’t so much a failure as a massive missed opportunity.