In Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals, injured Willis Reed famously limped onto the floor at Madison Square Garden and made the first two baskets against the Lakers before exiting to inspire the Knicks to their first title.
James Harden did his best to create similar magic for the Nets in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Bucks Tuesday night at Barclays Center, but while was able to play 46 gutty minutes with a tight right hamstring, it was Kevin Durant who really provided the stuff of legends.
Harden missed his first seven shots and scored only five points, but Durant played all 48 minutes, scored 49 points and led a furious second-half comeback that produced a miraculous 114-108 victory as the Nets gained a 3-2 series lead and have a chance to wrap it up in Game 6 Thursday night in Milwaukee.
Although Harden didn’t exactly pull a Willis Reed, it turns out he inspired the guy who mattered the most. "It inspired me this morning when he said he was thinking about giving it a go," Durant said of Harden. "We wanted him to be healthy and make sure this is the right decision for him, but once he got out there and tested it out, we were all happy for him, and we knew that would give us an extra spark.
"On the stat sheet it may not look like it was great, but just his energy, his talk, his communication throughout the whole game was just on point. I’m glad he was out there with us, and I can’t wait for Game 6."
The Nets trailed by as much as 17 points in the first half but were down only six starting the fourth quarter. But Durant scored 14 points in a 23-11 run as the Nets took a 104-100 lead on a Jeff Green three-pointer with 3:40 left to play.
The Bucks tied the score at 104, but Harden hit a pair of go-ahead foul shots, and Durant buried a deep three to restore a four-point lead. The Nets were up two when Durant stole the ball from Giannis Antetokounmpo, was fouled and made both with 15.3 seconds left for a 111-107 lead that held up.
Durant scored 31 of his 49 in the second half, had a 16-for-23 shooting night and completed an epic triple-double with 17 rebounds and 10 assists. Green had a huge 27-point game off the bench, including 7-for-8 three-point shooting, Blake Griffin added 17, and while Harden had a 1-for-10 shooting night, he chipped in six rebounds and eight assists. Antetokounmpo led the Bucks with 34, and Khris Middleton had 25.
Nets coach Steve Nash described Durant’s brilliant effort as "just a historic, historic performance. He played the entire game, he barely missed, he got to the line, 17 rebounds, 10 assists, three steals, two blocks. I mean, 49 points, it’s ridiculous what he’s able to do. For him to have the toughness, that mentality, that’s what makes him one of the all-time greats. That’s a signature performance for Kevin, and it was beautiful to watch."
When the Nets issued an injury report Tuesday morning after shootaround, Harden was listed as "doubtful." Explaining how he arrived at his decision to go for it, Harden said, "I woke up and was like, ‘You know what? Let’s go.’ I tried to do the best that I can. Hopefully, I gave them some life."
Asked if he expected to play so much, Harden said, "Forty-six is a lot but I’ll rest and proper treatment and I’ll give it another shot in Game 6."
It was clear early Harden was compromised and could not drive to the basket in his usual attacking style. He had a scoreless first half missing five three-point attempts and a floater. But with 7:21 left in the third period, Harden broke into the scoring column, banking in an 11-foot jumper and converting a foul shot to cut the Nets’ deficit to 71-57 and spark the Durant-led comeback.
Asked where this game ranked in his personal pantheon, Durant said, "I don’t even rank or look at performances. I just try to move on and see if I can do it again. It was a fun game to be a part of, but for now, it was great that we got the ‘W.’"