Deer in the Headlights

KD gains a tremendous amount of respect, but—in an unprecedented showcase of parity—the NBA will have a new champion this July.

Everyone knew where the ball was going. And if the last possession—and truthfully—the final two minutes were any indication of the will of the basketball Gods, then just about anybody watching could tell you how the story was going to end.

The Bucks left the door open, and they were going to pay dearly for it.

Kevin Durant was going to sink a game-winning, buzzer-beating, Game 7 legacy cementing three-pointer to send the Brooklyn Nets to victory over the Milwaukee Bucks and into the Eastern Conference Finals.

Six seconds remaining and down two, it was as if KD found the infinity stone gauntlet on the hardwood, picked it up and said ‘I am inevitable’ as he sunk a turnaround, fade away 23.5-footer over PJ Tucker.

For a moment, the Bucks stood frozen—as if they were actual deer in the headlights of a vehicle driven by Durant. KD’s jumper—as always— was smoother than silk.

It was going to be one of those transcendent moments in NBA lore. Right up there with Bill Russell’s block; Magic stepping in at center; Isiah scoring 25 on a bum ankle; Jordan’s flu game in ‘97 and then last shot in ‘98 verses Utah; Ray Allen’s corner three and LeBron’s block.

Granted, this was not the Finals, however, the shot was paving the foundation for a Brooklyn title just as Kawhi’s Game 7 winner against Philly did back in the 2019 Eastern Conference Semis for Toronto.

The only problem? KD’s toe was on the line.

Instead of a go-ahead three with one second left on the clock, it was a tied ball game with Milwaukee having an opportunity—albeit slim—to win in regulation.

Still, the shot forced overtime where the momentum should have been with the home town Nets, but fatigue caught up to the big time superstars after playing every single minute. Only three field goals were made in the extra five minutes; the Nets could only muster two points after KD scored the last eight points for Brooklyn in regulation.

With about 10 seconds left in overtime and the Nets down two, Durant again found himself with an opportunity to reign supreme with a game-winning look. Instead, he shot an air ball.

Fifty-three minutes of work, two injured superstar teammates and a Greek Freak named Giannis all combined to doom KD in the end. Yet in the process, Durant gained what I would argue all basketball players covet most:

Respect.

Personally, I find it hard to root for KD because of his career transitions to form superstar teams and rack up titles. There was a greater chance that he would have done it this year with the Nets if not for the injuries that inhibited their performance along the way. Still, KD’s iconic performance through the adversity earned him way more respect from teammates, foes and fans than any championship ever did.

Watching Durant pour his heart and soul into what would be the final game of his season made me respect him. The grit, determination, and perseverance it took to nearly win anyway should be applauded. His sportsmanship afterwards to shake hands with and hug opposing players—something few other athletes do these days—should be praised.

The pinnacle of Durant’s humanization was when he was hugging his mom in the stands after the emotional loss. For all of the greatness that was displayed on the floor in that epic Game 7—superstar talent and performances, game-tying buzzer beaters and overtime—the actions afterwards showcased both a respect and love for the game that made the game that much more legendary.

Opposing players embracing, KD crying in the arms of his mom and respecting the game enough to ignore the referees for a few moments before they had Brook Lopez shoot two final free throws.

That post game actions embodied the game of basketball just as much as the play on the court does, and Durant was instrumental in both as he a) laid it all out to where he no longer had the energy to get his shot up to the rim and b) immediately honoring his competition directly after the loss.

This brand of basketball, this spirit of competition is what fans love and what the NBA has lacked for a half decade at minimum. It is why fans hate KD and LeBron and unnatural super teams for taking parity creating games like these away from the people. Unfortunately, it took a few injuries for a game like this to occur in the first place.

And the Bucks, the deer who you would expect to be injured the most starring down the headlights of Durant’s shot, walked away to advance without a scratch. Deer are inevitable.

They leave behind a stranded KD in the road with yet another dent in his career legacy, but also a lot more respect for battling through it all.

NBA Conference Finals

Four teams remain who are chasing an NBA championship: the Phoenix Suns vs the Los Angeles Clippers in the West and the Bucks vs Atlanta Hawks in the East. In my past newsletter, I wrote about exactly why the NBA needed a fresh set of teams in the NBA Finals.

Here is a quick breakdown of each team:

Suns

This was our darling Cinderella from the previous newsletter. Great town, terrific venue and passionate fans. Yet the Suns have been in the West’s cellar three years running, before winning all eight games in the Orlando bubble last season and tearing through the West this year.

After falling down 2-1 to the Lakers in the first round, Phoenix has won eight straight playoff games over the Lakers, Nuggets and Clippers. Devin Booker had a 40-point triple-double, which included 13 rebounds and 11 assists in the Game 1 win over the Clippers without Chris Paul.

The Suns have only ever been to the NBA Finals twice. Losing in 1976 to the Boston Celtics and then in ‘93 to Jordan’s Bulls. And still, the Suns most recognizable players are either Charles Barkley or Steve Nash.

Bucks

In just the third year of the franchise’s existence, Milwaukee posted a 66-16 record and swept the Bullets in the Finals behind the play of Lew Alcindor and Oscar Robertson. They returned to the Finals in ‘74, but lost in seven to the Celtics.

The 21st century Bucks are lead by Greek superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo who was league MVP in both 2019 and 2020. The Bucks seemed poised to make the Finals in 2019 before blowing a 2-0 lead to the Raptors, and Giannis was injured during the second round bubble series against the Miami Heat in their 2020 exit.

The Bucks also initiated the boycott during the Playoffs in the bubble last season.

Still, Milwaukee found a way to beat the Nets in seven games behind Antetokounmpo’s 40 points, 13 boards and five assists in 50 minutes. Therefore proving to be worth every bit of his five-year, $228 million extension he signed at the end of 2020.

Hawks

The Hawks have been to four NBA Finals—all against Boston in 1957, ‘58, ‘60 and ‘61—but only won the ‘58 championship. And this was all while they were located in St. Louis.

All the Atlanta Hawks did in their first playoff appearance in three years was make their first conference finals since 2015. And, most impressively, they did so without any All Stars, All-NBA team selections or All-NBA Defensive team selections. Yet Trae Young led the Hawks to series victories over the Knicks at the Garden and three road wins over the 76ers—including a 25-point comeback in Game 5– at the Wells Fargo Center—a place where Philly had only lost nine times in the past two seasons.

Clippers

Technically, the Clippers are the final lab constructed ‘Superteam’ remaining as Paul George and Kawhi Leonard teamed up in the ‘19 offseason. The duo helped their squad overcome two 2-0 playoff deficits to both the Mavericks and the Jazz in the first two rounds. But then they lost Leonard to injury in Game 4 against the Jazz—who in the same game had one of the most ferocious dunks you will ever see.

Injuries—and non-organic super teams— have prevented Steph Curry, Kawhi and KD from overtaking LeBron as the new face of the NBA and title of best player in the world. So it will be interesting to see if Kawhi returns against the Suns.

And despite never winning a championship, the Clippers are still the boring option of the four to opt to cheer for.

Therefore, between the four franchises, they technically share two combined NBA titles, though one team was in a different city in the 1950s and the other most recent title came 50 years ago. For the first time in a long time there will be a new NBA champion and more than likely a new Finals MVP.

A turning point, a new dawn perhaps, for the NBA.

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