TODAY'S PAPER
Good Evening
Good Evening
SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

Big 3 to Big 1 to Big 2: James Harden returns so Kevin Durant doesn't have to do it alone in Game 5

Kevin Durant and James Harden of the Nets

Kevin Durant and James Harden of the Nets take the court prior Game 5 of the Second Round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs against the Milwaukee Bucks at Barclays Center on Tuesday. Credit: Steven Ryan

Kevin Durant joined the Nets to be a teammate, not a solo superstar.

This is something James Harden understands. Harden engineered a trade from Houston to the Nets this January so he could play alongside Durant and Kyrie Irving. Harden was tired of going it alone on the Rockets. He wanted to team up with some superstar friends and see how good they could be.

So, despite having a hamstring that 10 days ago was so sore that he had to leave Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals just 47 seconds into the game, Harden pushed himself to get back out on the floor Tuesday night and join Durant. With Irving out with a sprained ankle, Harden didn’t want to force Durant to carry the load of winning a pivotal Game 5 without both him and Irving.

"Yeah, I think that’s what is driving James here. He wants to play, he wants to win a championship," Nets coach Steve Nash said before Harden’s status was announced on Tuesday. "So I think it’s been really difficult on him how much he cares, how much time he puts in, how much effort he’s put in to get to this position. That’s definitely the source of his motivation right now and I understand and respect it. James is driving this."

A half hour before tipoff it was announced that Harden, who had been listed as doubtful Tuesday morning, would play. He started the game, but it was not known how many minutes he would play.

What was known was that Durant would certainly be the only fully healthy member of the Big 3 playing in what was probably the biggest NBA game ever played at the Barclays Center.

Much to do was made before the game about Durant’s legacy being on the line, about how the four-time NBA scoring champ couldn’t truly proclaim to be the best player in the game unless he could lead the Nets to a big win in Game 5 without Irving and Harden.

Durant’s teammates, however, seemed to realize how ridiculous that notion is, especially against a star-laden team like the Bucks, who had a healthy two-time MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo plus Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and a tough-minded defense. That defense was led by a tough throwback effort by P.J. Tucker, who frustrated Durant in Games 3 and 4 as Milwaukee won two games at home to even the series. With Irving missing the entire second half of Game 4 after spraining his ankle in the second quarter, Durant was 5-for-15 in the second half. And he got very little help from the Nets supporting cast.

"I think everybody else has just got to have more of an aggressive mindset. Because you can’t just solely rely on Kevin," Joe Harris said. "Kevin’s not going to score 100 points, so you’ve got to get production elsewhere. You know, you hope that he takes a lot of shots, is efficient, plays well; but everybody else has got to step up and be aggressive and play with confidence."

The fact that Durant has so much power, the fact that he is in pursuit of challenges and championships and has exercised his wandering eye has apparently ticked a lot of people off. So much so, that there were quite a few suggesting that Durant’s legacy would be forever tarnished if the he couldn’t get the Nets to win two more games.

That kind of pressure, however, doesn’t seem to bother Durant. The way he saw it after practice on Monday is that he just needed to go out and play hard.

Said Durant, "I’ve just got to be prepared to do everything out there just like any other night."

New York Sports