The 2021 NBA Playoffs have been a joy to watch. The drama of each game has been heightened by the number of legitimate contenders. And, the field is the most open it’s been in at least a decade. Injuries have played a significant role in that, but so has the level of talent. The heavens are rich: Stellar Nebulas like Devin Booker and Trae Young have shot their teams into the conference finals; a Red Giant like Giannis Antetokounmpo advanced by showing critics he can perform under pressure. However, the center of the NBA universe went prematurely dormant this weekend when Kevin Durant and the Brooklyn Nets were eliminated in the second round. Durant lost, by a shoe size, in overtime of the series’ win-or-go-home seventh game, despite a herculean effort — 48 points, 9 rebounds, and 6 assists in 53 minutes played. The public sang his praises as the seven-foot sensation dragged his team to the finish line, only to watch his opponents cross the tape one second sooner. So, why is it that KD is getting his flowers more than when he made it to the finish line? His accolades include (to keep it short) two-time champion, two-time finals MVP, and league MVP, so a second-round exit, at face value, ranks relatively low. Was it because we had never seen him carry an offensive load at an all-time level? If you answered yes, then shame on you. Durant has proven long before now that he can bend a basketball game to his will. These past two weeks, he reminded us his performance needs no validation.
The narrative that Durant needs help to win followed him from Oklahoma City. The still-scrutinized choice to leave the Thunder and join Golden State, in the offseason after losing to the Warriors in heart-breaking fashion, was low-hanging fruit for faultfinders everywhere. Before that, Durant was the rising star who led a small-market franchise to the precipice of ultimate victory but did not reach the peak. Never mind that he got buckets from 2010–14 at a rate only eclipsed by Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain. It was not enough. So, KD gave his critics what he thought they wanted. He won two championships with the Warriors and sacrificed his Achilles tendon in pursuit of a third. Still, basketball pundits attached asterisks to his accomplishments because of his surrounding cast. Doubts remained if he could succeed on his own or if he was just a 24-karat gold puzzle piece. Durant was stuck between shortcomings and assumptions.
Durant’s supremacy in the Milwaukee series earned him the sweet spot for audiences. The situation demanded that he step up. Kyrie Irving sprained his ankle in Game 4 and did not return. James Harden did not see the court until Game 5 due to an ailing hamstring and was a shell of his usual self. So, KD played the Lone (Long) Ranger without Tonto: he tore up the Bucks in Game 2 with 32 points, put up an all-time triple-double in Game 5, and set an NBA record for most points in a Game 7. In the series, Durant led his team in points (294), assists (38), rebounds (74), steals (11), blocks (8), and minutes played (299). It is difficult not to respect that type of production. Especially when you consider this was his first time back in the playoffs after tearing his Achilles tendon in 2019 — a career-ender for most athletes. Not this gunslinger. He returned to use every bit of his ammunition before eventually falling.
This was not the first time Durant embarked on a one-man tear. In the 2018 Finals with Golden State, Durant effectively clinched the series with a 43-point, 13-rebound effort in Game 3. No other Warrior scored more than 11 that night. In 2014, his MVP season with OKC, Durant closed out Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers with 39 points and 16 rebounds in Game 6. His running mate, Russell Westbrook, shot 4-of-15. In Game 4 of the 2012 conference finals, Durant poured in 36 points against San Antonio, 18 of them in the fourth quarter. That game evened the series and helped springboard OKC to its first finals appearance. The year before, Durant dominated Game 7 of the second round versus Memphis, dropping 39 points in his first winner-take-all playoff game. Throughout his playoff career, KD has delivered.
So, this season, while it looked like Durant exceeded our expectations, history tells us this is business as usual. The proof is in the past, yet we somehow ignore it while being repeatedly reminded of it. Perhaps, because up until now, KD did not act like a true champion, whatever that means. He has a hardened exterior, bickers with media, and occasionally lashes out on Twitter. Admittedly, his bio, “IM ME, I DO ME, I CHILL,” in all uppercase letters sends mixed messages. But, everything about Durant’s game SHOULD be capitalized. His ability, size, judgment, and subtle genius make him a shooting star among white dwarfs. His greatest sin is making basketball look so easy that it is difficult to understand his public persona.
We should also dispel that he did not win like a true champion. Yes, he did not lift a group of blue-collar, pull-themselves-up-by-their-own-bootstraps, incompetent journeymen to a championship. But, no one has done it without help. Since the NBA Finals began in 1950, only two teams have won without three or more players averaging double-digit points in their series. Those two winners had Shaq & Kobe and Jordan & Pippen. Durant was denounced because of the ease with which he won back-to-back titles with Golden State. He chose a more comfortable job with better perks. In doing so, Durant made the season a forgone conclusion. But that doesn’t prove he is weak. That proves just how damn good the guy is at his job.
In sports, we want our athletes to scratch and claw for everything they get. We want them to suffer before they become king of the hill. Durant was like the person driving alone in the carpool lane while you sit stuck in afternoon traffic. You laid on the horn, sat back in astonishment, cranked up the AC to cool down your boiling rage, and then after wasting 15 minutes pissed off at something you could not control, realized his car was a gasless upgrade from your broken-down Ford Pinto with a carpool sticker on its bumper.
On Saturday, the shot felt inevitable as Durant rose with seconds remaining in Game 7 against the Bucks. Make it to stay alive, miss it, and go home. In the past, fans rooted for Durant to miss. Now, they yearned for a swish. With his gas tank running on empty, Durant drained an iconic shot that was inches away from legendary. No one cared that he missed every shot in overtime. No one blamed him for the narrow loss and an early exit for a team with championship expectations. He did everything he could. In previous years, he lost when he won. This weekend, he won when he lost. The narrative about Durant changed, but his performance remained consistent. Once again, he showed us he has nothing left to prove.