Kevin Durant scored 48 points, the most ever in a Game 7, but it wasn’t enough as the Milwaukee Bucks beat the Brooklyn Nets in overtime to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Durant played all 53 minutes and scored 48 points, including a dizzying fadeaway jumper with one second remaining in regulation to force overtime.
But for his toe on the line, half a shoe size, that would have been the game and the series done, then and there. For a moment it felt as though it was. The Barclays Center erupted, some fleeting ecstasy. Replays showed it wasn’t to be.
109-109 and a fifth quarter. The last thing either team looked like they wanted.
That the overtime period ended 6-2 proved just how much these two teams have given throughout the series and in particular on Saturday night, through an utterly delirious 53 minutes of basketball. Durant played every second, as did James Harden. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton only marginally less.
It was those fine margins that ultimately decided things. The relentless Bruce Brown – 6ft 4in in a guard’s body – took two crucial offensive boards to open the overtime period, outworking Giannis in the process, who was by now running on fumes.
One lead to a put-back basket. The other a vital extra possession on which the Nets couldn’t capitalise. Down the other end, Giannis backed Durant down as far as he could, as deep into the paint as their two battered and bruised bodies would allow. A one-handed hook over his opponent from a few feet out was all that was allowed. Tie game again, 111-111.
Back at them Durant, mustered every ounce of energy he had left and drove for a layup, at which point Brook Lopez decided to produce the block of his life.
Lopez, ironically the Brooklyn Nets’ all-time leading scorer, had a quietly excellent night for the Bucks, scoring 19 points on 3-of-4 shooting from deep as Middleton and Jrue Holiday (5-of-23 field goals, 2-of-9 from three-point range) struggled for the vast majority. But that block, his fourth of the evening, was the play he’ll remember for the rest of his days.
Sensing the opportunity to put the Nets to bed once and for all, Middleton took a screen off Giannis, feinted into the lane and then span back for the jumper. He had a poor shooting night overall (9-of-26 from the floor, 2-of-7 from three for 23 points) but when it mattered he made sure the net didn’t move. Swish. 113-111.
With 40 seconds left and nothing else left to give, Durant went for the win. On this attempt, his last after almost 300 minutes played this series, the legs were gone. No lift, no arc. But also no shame. This was Durant’s third straight playoff game with over 30 points, a Nets franchise record. His 48 points an NBA record, the most in a Game 7.
That he ended on the losing team is down to everything other than him. With no time left Harden fouled Lopez under the basket, who hit two free-throws to finish things for good 115-111. The Bucks were celebrating long before that.
This has been something of a miraculous turn of events for Milwaukee to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the 10th time in franchise history and second time in three seasons. Not only did they survive yet another scoring onslaught by Durant, but they came back from 2-0 down in the series, including a 39-point loss in Game 2.
The untimely injuries to both Harden in Game 1 and Kyrie Irving in Game 4 undoubtedly swung the momentum. In that sense the Nets will rue their luck.
For the Bucks, it came down to the mental, physical and emotional fortitude of their star Giannis, rightly the be-all and end-all of this franchise. The two-time MVP matched Durant every step of the way, scoring 40 points, grabbing 13 rebounds and dishing five assists.
Giannis has been criticised for two things throughout this series: not guarding Durant one-on-one and failing to hit his free-throws. Perhaps the critics have a leg to stand on regarding the fact he tends to avoid picking up Durant, but given that the indefatigable PJ Tucker takes to that impossible task with such relish, and Milwaukee need Giannis for so many other things, there is certainly a case for it.
Tucker, to his credit, had another impactful game that will be hidden deep within the box score despite fouling out. He even took the time to have an endearing back-and-forth with Wanda Durant, Kevin’s mum, who he has known since their Texas Longhorns days.
As for the free-throws, well, as soon as the vociferous Brooklyn crowd starting counting him down at the line due to his new glacial routine, Giannis started hitting them. You can’t ask for much more than that.
The Bucks will now face the winner of Sunday night’s other Game 7 between the Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals. They will be favourites to reach the NBA Finals whoever they face. Given they remain the healthiest team in what is quickly turning into a ‘last man standing’ playoff bracket, they might well be for the championship now, too.