The Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks were both well aware of the stakes heading into Game 5 of their tied second round series in the 2021 NBA Playoffs. Historically, the team that wins Game 5 of a 2-2 series goes on to win the series about 82 percent of the time. Both teams had protected their home court to this point, but it felt like the momentum was swinging to Milwaukee’s side after stealing their second straight win in Game 4 while the Nets lost Kyrie Irving to injury. Suddenly, Brooklyn was the desperate team.
The Nets originally ruled out James Harden for Game 5 a day earlier as the superstar guard recovered from a strained hamstring suffered in the first minute of the first game of the series. Harden’s status would get upgraded from doubtful to questionable to ‘game-time decision’ throughout the day before he was announced in the starting lineup.
After a humiliating second round exit in the bubble last year, it felt like the Bucks were catching every break they needed to upset Brooklyn and reach the conference finals. The Nets were always playing this season with championship-or-bust expectations, and they weren’t going to get much sympathy from the rest of the league for their poor injury luck.
The cascading pressure that was palatable on both sides would end up giving way to one of the great playoff games we’ve seen in recent memory. It was the Nets who came away with a comeback win to take control of the series.
The Nets defeated the Bucks, 114-108, take take a commanding 3-2 lead as the series heads back to Milwaukee on Thursday. Anyone who watched that game immediately sensed they were witnessing an instant classic.
This game is going to reverberate around the NBA for some time. This is what made it so special.
Kevin Durant showed why he’s one of the greatest players in NBA history
Durant had nothing to prove but everything to gain as he entered Game 5. Durant’s status as an all-time great was already secure with an MVP and two Finals MVPs, but his decision to play with several other superstars in Golden State and then Brooklyn led critics to argue he couldn’t carry a team to greatness by himself. With Irving out and Harden badly compromised, KD had no other choice but to takeover.
All he did was turn in one of the greatest playoff performances in the history of the sport.
Durant ended the night with 49 points, 17 rebounds, 10 assists, three steals, and two blocks on 16-of-23 shooting from the field, 4-of-9 shooting from three, and 13-of-16 shooting from the foul line. Perhaps most impressive of all, he played all 48 minutes of the game. Let’s not forget this is a player who suffered a devastating Achilles tear only two years ago.
This was an all-time great player putting up an all-time great performance in a pressure situation to save his team’s season. This was Kevin Durant at his absolute apex.
Durant sliced Milwaukee’s defense in every possible way, initiating the offense like a point guard, draining pull-ups from three-point range and inside the arc, powering his way to the basket and still finishing with soft touch. There was nothing Milwaukee could do to stop him.
Durant powered Brooklyn’s second half comeback almost by himself. Next time someone criticizes Durant for wanting to play with other superstars, show them this game.
James Harden somehow played 46 minutes on one leg
Harden had no business playing in Game 5 as he nursed a strained hamstring, but Brooklyn head coach Steve Nash put the decision to play in his superstar’s hands. With Irving out and the series suddenly tied, Harden was determined to gut it out. Somehow, he gave the Nets 46 minutes on a night when he was obviously struggling to move around the floor.
Harden was legitimately killing the Nets in the first half as the Bucks built a 16-point lead heading into the break. He was scoreless on 0-of-6 shooting from the field, and he was slowing down Brooklyn’s offense as the lead ball handler. Nash saw Harden’s inability to push the pace and installed Durant at point guard in the second half. That’s when Brooklyn caught fire and willed their way back into the game.
Harden ended the night with five points, eight assists, and three rebounds on 1-of-10 shooting from the field and 0-of-8 shooting from three. Even during one of the toughest performances of his career, he still played more minutes than any player on the Bucks.
To his credit, Harden still had several moments where he made an impact. His mostly stationary passing helped spring the Brooklyn offense for cuts and spot-up jumpers. He even stone-walled Giannis Antetokounmpo on a late post-up on the defensive end.
It wasn’t a good effort from Harden, but it was still kind of a remarkable one. What kind of condition he’ll be in for the rest of the series remains a massive question mark.
The Bucks blew a golden opportunity
Everyone involved with the Bucks is going to have to reconcile with this defeat for a long time. If Milwaukee eventually drops one more game to lose the series, this is the game that’s going to haunt them into the offseason and beyond.
Irving’s absence and Harden being injured to the point of hurting the team was an incredible blessing for the Bucks. They still couldn’t take advantage of it. Everyone in the organization deserves to take heat after a performance like that, from ownership to the front office to head coach Mike Budenholzer to Giannis to Jrue Holiday to the rest of the team.
The Bucks led by 16 points at halftime. Brooklyn took its first lead with just over eight minutes left, but the game was still there for the taking for the Bucks. They simply fumbled too many opportunities away at the end of the game, literally in one instance.
Budenholzer is going to get fired if the Bucks lose this series. He needs to adjust the offense and find a way to slow down Durant with traps and ball denial. It’s hard to flame the Bucks too much when KD goes on a scoring tear like that, but it won’t make the loss any easier to stomach. This was a game the Bucks had to win, and they blew it.
Giannis Antetokounmpo couldn’t close out the win
Let’s first point out that Antetokounmpo was excellent most of the night, finishing with 34 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, and two blocks on 14-of-22 shooting from the field, 2-of-4 shooting from three, and 4-of-7 shooting at the foul line. He dominated the game in the first half, and gave his team the opportunity to run away with the win.
Durant’s incredible shot-making and some late miscues by Giannis, his teammates, and his coaching staff eventually cost the Bucks.
Antetokounmpo wasn’t good enough at the end of the game. It was frustrating to see him take a fadeaway jumper when he had Harden in the post with under two minutes left. Giannis is too big and too strong to be settling for this shot.
It's sad how Giannis can never score on Harden in the clutch— arian (@arxanii) June 16, 2021
Harden really called off a double-team too, the disrespect pic.twitter.com/sUuhng2N9c
Giannis also fumbled a late pass from Middleton in the final seconds when the Bucks had a chance to tie the game. Giannis should have been able to cleanly catch this pass and finish with the dunk, but he lost control and the Bucks blew their final opportunity to extend the game.
If Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn't fumble this pass from Khris Middleton and doesn't cause a turnover, this is for sure an easy dunk for him and a tie game with less than 20-seconds left in the game. Poor Giannis and the Bucks. #NBA pic.twitter.com/uBnBVeE3Z8— Chris Beasmore (@CBeasmoreNews) June 16, 2021
It’s easy to criticize Antetokounmpo for his missed threes, missed free throws, shaky ball handling, and lack of refined post moves. As we wrote earlier this series, Giannis should ultimately to be used and viewed as a big man, but he’s often had to play like a guard because Milwaukee lacks an elite on-ball initiator. It’s remarkable that Giannis, still only 26 years old, is already a two-time MVP while still having so much room to grow on offense.
Giannis’ defense was terrific throughout the night as a help side rim protector. He’s unquestionably one of the best players in the game today. But on a night when Durant went supernova, Antetokounmpo had to cede that he’s still not at the very top of the league just yet.
"He's the best player in the world right now."— NBA TV (@NBATV) June 16, 2021
Giannis after Kevin Durant’s Game 5 performance. pic.twitter.com/zXP0BF4YA7
Jeff Green helped save the Nets off the bench
On a historic night for Durant, it was his former rookie teammate on the Seattle Supersonics who provided the supplemental scoring punch his team needed to win.
Green scored 27 points on 7-of-8 shooting from three-point range to give the Brooklyn offense a major jolt off the bench. Green easily outscored all Milwaukee’s reserves, who combined for 15 points.
Green has been on seven teams in the last seven years, and has played for 11 teams in his career. While he never lived up to his draft hype as the former No. 5 overall pick, he has remade himself into a stretch center late in his career to become the type of role player who keeps getting signed. Green has been in plenty of big games before, but rarely has he been as good as this.
Green missed Game 3 with a foot injury and had only scored 17 points total in the series coming into Game 5. In the biggest moment of Brooklyn’s season, he delivered.
This might go down as the defining game of the 2021 NBA Playoffs
The NBA Playoffs are wide open this year, which typically isn’t the case. LeBron James and Stephen Curry are already eliminated. We finally have some new franchises in the mix for an NBA championship, and it feels like every team left standing had a reasonable path to a championship coming into this game.
The Nets have the most talent and should be the favorites in the playoffs this year, but the injuries to Irving and Harden have made them vulnerable. The Bucks had a chance to put them on the brink of elimination in Game 5, and they just couldn’t get it done.
It feels like all three teams left standing in the Western Conference — the Phoenix Suns, the Utah Jazz, and the Los Angeles Clippers — have about an equal chance to reach the Finals. Will they one day bemoan Milwaukee losing this game to give the Nets an opportunity to extend their season and improve their health?
Game 5 of Nets-Bucks could have major implications for the rest of the playoffs. For now, let’s just appreciate a game that gave us everything we could ask for.