Kevin Durant may be the best player in the world, but Giannis Antetokounmpo and his Bucks were the best team in Milwaukee on Thursday night.
Milwaukee forced a winner-take-all Game 7 in Brooklyn on Saturday night with a 104-89 win over the Nets in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference semifinals series.
Antetokounmpo dialed up a big performance at Fiserv Forum when his team needed him most, scoring 30 points and grabbing 17 rebounds. Inside the paint, he dominated by hitting 11 of his 12 shots.
Most importantly, unlike Durant, he got lots of help from his supporting cast as the Bucks managed to bounce back from a tough Game 5 loss. Khris Middleton led the Bucks in scoring with 38 points and Jrue Holiday had 21.
Contrast that with the load Durant had to carry with the Nets.
With Kyrie Irving once again sidelined by a sprained ankle and James Harden still not himself after missing the first four games of the series with a sore hamstring, Durant followed his 49-point performance in Game 5 with 32 points and 11 rebounds in Game 6. Durant got little to no help from his teammates. Harden was the next highest scorer with 16 and Blake Griffin added 12. No one else was in double figures.
Durant said he did not feel any pressure to duplicate his big night from Tuesday.
"I’m not trying to go out there and be a hero," Durant said. "I know I can’t win basketball games by myself. I just try to play the right way ... I try not to duplicate big nights like that. I just try to let the game flow and tonight wasn’t our night."
No, it wasn’t. And the scary truth is they can’t rely on one player – no matter how great that player is – to carry then Saturday night in what will be the biggest basketball game ever to be played at the Barclays Center.
When the Eastern Conference seeding was set, many predicted this would be the best matchup of the postseason. Though there have been a couple of blowouts, there have also been some incredible performances and closely-fought games. The one good omen for the Nets is that the home team has won every game of the series.
"We have the second seed for this particular reason," Harden said. "We just have to go out there and hoop at home again."
Heading into Game 6, all eyes were on Antetokounmpo. Despite the fact that Antetokounmpo had stated the obvious after Durant exploded for a triple-double in Game 5 on Tuesday, more than a few Bucks fans had to annoyed by his anointing Durant "the best player in the world."
For the past two seasons, Antetokounmpo had been the best player in the world, so the way he spoke about Durant was a bit wave-the-white-flaggish.
There was still at least a game to be played when Antetokounmpo made his comments. It’s hard to imagine LeBron James making that kind of concession while still in the middle of a series. Michael Jordan, even at the end of his career, would have never conceded that another player he was about to face again was a better player.
Perhaps Antetokounmpo’s words were simply a frustrated cry for help. It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of the opportunity the Bucks blew in Game 5, given that Durant was the Nets’ only healthy superstar and Milwaukee had a 17-point lead in the third quarter.
And it’s hard to overstate the pressure that was on both coach Mike Budenholzer and Antetokounmpo entering a must-win Game 6 in their home arena.
Antetokounmpo is a great player in his own right. Earlier this week, he was named to the All-NBA first team for the third straight year and was the only player to be named on all 100 ballots.
Antetokounmpo has scored 30 or more points in each of his last four games. His stat line from Game 5, if not compared to Durant’s, was dominating as he scored 34 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.
Still, his playoff history as a whole has been problematic. Antetokounmpo has made it to the conference finals just once in eight years. In the playoffs, he has been a liability at the free-throw line and a disappointment from three-point range.
After the Game 5 debacle, Budenholzer was so on the hot seat entering Game 6 that there were rumblings that Rick Carlisle, who resigned from Dallas on Thursday morning, was in line to be the Bucks’ next head coach.
Now, it appears as if the two-time MVP may get some confidence after producing a big game under pressure. And the Nets may get a hard dose of reality.
Durant may be the best player in the NBA right now. But he can’t do it alone.