For all intents and purposes, Kevin Durant will be flying solo going into Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Tuesday night at Barclays Center. The Bucks won the past two games in Milwaukee to tie the series 2-2, and they know the Nets are wounded prey because their Big 3 superstar cast has been reduced to one after injured Kyrie Irving and James Harden both were ruled out of Game 5 on Monday.
Irving suffered a right ankle sprain midway through the second quarter of Game 4 on Sunday. He underwent an MRI exam Monday and was ruled out. When coach Steve Nash was asked if Irving might return in the series, he said, "I have no idea."
Harden did not practice Monday but tested his tight right hamstring in a workout, and he subsequently was ruled out. That leaves just Durant and the supporting cast to battle the Bucks’ Big 3 of Giannis Antetokunmpo, Khris Middlteon and Jrue Holiday, plus defensive specialist P.J. Tucker, who bounced Durant around in Games 3 and 4 at Fiserv Forum.
Asked how it feels to be forced to adapt to such critical injuries during the postseason, Durant said, "I’m not the one that’s injured. For Kyrie and James, this is an opportunity for them to play at the highest level. And to not play because of injuries, I feel more for them than for me. I wish my brothers were out there playing. I wish they were healthy, but that’s a part of the game.
"I know they’re going to be doing their best to get back on the floor and get healthy as fast as possible…and the rest of the guys who are healthy, we’ve got to play as hard as we can every possession."
Without a doubt, the Bucks ganged up on Durant after Irving went down in Game 4, and Tucker was especially rough. Nash described his tactics as "borderline-basketball physicality."
The Bucks’ Middleton had a different take. "Tuck has done a great job of making it tough on KD," Middleton said after practice. "When we see that, it’s contagious. We don’t want to let him down. We don’t want to see our efforts being wasted when he had one of the hardest players out there to guard."
In Game 4, Durant had 28 points and 13 rebounds, but he had a 9-of-25 shooting performance and was 1-of-8 from three-point range. He had to pick himself up off the floor several times after shots that went awry with no foul.
Questioned about the physicality of Tucker, who went jaw-to-jaw with Durant after one verbal exchange during Game 3, Durant downplayed it. "It’s the playoffs," he said. "I feel like the refs are human just like us. Some calls they’re going to get, some calls they may miss.
"I think more so than anything, their whole teams plays good defense. They’ve got long, athletic guys that help a lot, and they close up in the paint and they do a good job of picking up full-court. It’s not just one guy we’re worried about. Their whole team does a good job of swarming and helping each other out…It’s just about playing through it."
After point guard Irving limped off in Game 4, Durant essentially became a point forward, bringing the ball upcourt and initiating the offense. Nash said the Nets became predictable, but Durant sounds determined to carry them in Game 5.
"I’ll do everything out there, just like I do every night," Durant said. "Some more than others. I might have to handle the ball more, I might have to post up more, I might have to come off pin-downs more. I’ve just got to be prepared to do everything out there just like any night."