Ever since that moment James Harden forced his way out of Houston and onto Brooklyn's already-loaded roster, the Nets have been a favorite to win the NBA title. But they never seemed to be anyone’s actual favorite team.
The little franchise that could had already shed its overachieving, second-class status a year earlier when Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving chose Brooklyn. And even this season as the trio of stars took turns carrying the team -- often while at least one of them was sidelined -- the Nets morphed into the sort of star tagalong franchise that was hard to root for. In their own city, blue and orange is ingrained in New York City basketball fans' DNA, and those Knicks became the hard-working, lovable bunch of no-names who captured hearts.
And maybe if it all went swimmingly for the Nets, coasting through the postseason, it would have remained that way. But for a night, even with the star power in place and the salary cap bloated , the Nets became a team of legends.
Finally, Tuesday night the Nets and their stars found the storyline that will stand in franchise history, in NBA history and maybe even grudgingly earn the admiration of fans of other teams, including the Knicks.
The Nets did it by finding themselves on the other side of expectations. Having lost two straight games in Milwaukee, they returned home to Brooklyn a shadow of the superteam they were supposed to be. Kyrie Irving was out of action with a sprained right ankle. James Harden had been declared out for the game on Monday afternoon. And that left Kevin Durant, matched up like a wide-eyed tourist finding himself in an alley with a gang of bullies approaching.
But Harden woke up and decided he wouldn’t let Durant go it alone.
"Game 5," Harden explained simply of the decision. "Woke up and was like, ‘You know what? Let’s go.’"
The Nets shifted his status from out to doubtful, and he worked out in the morning. And then after examinations by doctors he was upgraded again to questionable. The training staff encased the back of his leg from the bottom of his calf all the way up under his uniform in kinesiology tape, he went through pregame warmups and was inserted into the starting lineup.
With the wounded warrior in place, it was Durant who then took on the role of rising above expectations, putting together a game for the ages — playing all 48 minutes and compiling 49 points, 17 rebounds, 10 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocked shots. Harden was a decoy at times, an orchestrator at others, finishing with just five points on 1-for-10 shooting and handing out eight assists. But he gave what he had for an astounding 46 minutes.
"I tried to go out there and do the best I can," Harden said. "Hopefully, I gave my teammates some encouragement, some life. Obviously, I wanted to score the basketball and do what I normally do, but it is what it is. We win, we watch film, get our rest and prepare for Game 6."
And maybe they do that differently now. Maybe Harden is back to normal Thursday in Milwaukee or maybe he can’t play at all after giving everything he had on this night. Durant, with his own injury history, seemed to shrug off the notion that 48 minutes were anything special, and his coach attributed it simply to what had to be done to try to win this pivotal game.
The Nets did get that done. And they did it while somehow becoming the sort of team that even the detractors, the salary counters who abhor the gathering of stars in one place, could root for this time.
When it was over, the Bucks were the ones who had to answer for their failures. Why hadn’t they attacked Harden and made him try to defend? Why did they keep helping off of Jeff Green when it was clear he had it going? Could they have used Giannis Antetokounmpo to defend Durant? Or send two defenders to get the ball out of his hands?
Those were all questions for Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer to contemplate and lose sleep over. For the Nets, this was their time. They had earned this game and earned the respect of anyone who watched with this inspirational performance.
"I feel great," Harden said. "We won. So that's all that matters. At this point, it's by any means necessary."