Kevin Durant’s brilliant Game 5 puts him with these NBA legends


June 16, 2021 | 8:04pm

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Mike Vaccaro

MILWAUKEE — It goes in the pantheon. That’s not even a question. A day later, Kevin Durant left fans and coaches and fellow players speechless at what he did Tuesday night. How much? Even Giannis Antetokounmpo, who had the best (and most unwanted) view of Durant’s masterpiece, made a bold, startling, yet hard-to-argue statement afterward.

“You know,” Antetokounmpo said after Durant’s 48-minute, 49-point, 17-rebound, 10-assist magnum opus, “he’s the best player in the world right now.”

Coming from a fellow member of the top 5 of that category, that says something. But there were boldfaced basketball names lining up and falling over each other to get their praise on the record on Twitter.

Magic Johnson: “Kevin Durant gave us a Mount Rushmore performance tonight!!”

Isiah Thomas: “Let it be known @KDTrey5”

Paul Pierce: “That’s what great ones do.”

Donovan Mitchell: “Wow.”

LeBron James: “GREATNESS! Appreciate it while you can people.”

Walt Frazier, Kevin Durant and Julius Erving
Getty Images (2); Corey Sipkin

Around New York, it immediately shoots to the top of the list of all-time playoff performances when you factor in the brilliance of the line, the importance of the game, the gravity of the stakes, the enormity of the moment. How high? Clyde Frazier’s seminal Game 7 performance of the 1970 NBA Finals has been that gold standard for decades. But there have been others. Chronologically, since 1970, here are some of the very best:

Willis Reed, April 2, 1970
(Knicks 101, Bullets 80)

45 minutes, 36 points, 36 rebounds,
14-26 FG, 8-9 FT

Much like Durant, this rescued the higher narrative in the Eastern semifinals. The Knicks and Baltimore were tied at 2 games apiece, but the Bullets had just won two straight and had all the momentum. Then Reed went for 36 & 36 (and held defending MVP Wes Unseld to 10). The Knicks would later survive Game 7.

“Willis chased me off the court,” Unseld said later. “He was great.”

Walt Frazier, May 8, 1970
(Knicks 113, Lakers 99)

44 minutes, 36 points, 19 assists,
7 rebounds, 12-17 FG, 12-12 FT

Given the do-or-die nature of the game and the fact the Knicks had gone their first 25 years title-free — and given how limited Reed was with a damaged hip — this still retains No. 1 position. And should. Clyde wasn’t just heroic that night, he was downright mystical.

“I need a beer, man,” Frazier chirped afterward. No worries. After May 8, 1970, Frazier hasn’t had to buy a beer — or a meal — anywhere in the tri-state area.

Rick Barry, April 1, 1972
(Nets 122, Colonels 108)

48 minutes, 50 points
18-31 FG, 12-12 FT

Kentucky had finished the year 68-16 and 24 games better than the Nets. But the Nets had pixie dust on their side on their way to their first ABA Finals appearance — as well as Barry, who they already knew was bound back to San Francisco at season’s end. This was Game 1 of the East finals, and it set a lasting tone.

“I don’t think anyone can play any better than that,” Nets coach Lou Carnesecca said. “Even God.”

Julius Erving, May 13, 1976
(Nets 112, Nuggets 106)

45 minutes, 31 points, 19 rebounds,
5 assists, 5 steals, 4 blocks

The folks at Nassau Coliseum had no way of knowing this was Dr. J’s swan song as a Net; they were too busy celebrating their second ABA title in Doc’s three years on Long Island. And he was never better, before or after, and moved his teammate Bill Melchionni to marvel, “He can do whatever he wants on a basketball floor. Literally anything.”

Bernard King, April 27, 1984
(Knicks 127, Pistons 123)

41 minutes, 44 points, 12 rebounds
17-26 FG

Isiah tried to steal King’s thunder, as well as this decisive Game 5 of the East quarterfinal, scoring 16 points in the final 90 seconds of regulation before the Knicks survived in overtime. It was part of a deafening run for Bernard in the spring of ’84; he’d soon throw a scare into the eventual-champ Celtics, too.

“If I wanted to make the perfect offensive player,” Isiah said afterward in defeat, “I’d start with No. 30.”

Patrick Ewing, May 4, 1990
(Knicks 135, Celtics 108)

40 minutes, 44 points, 13 rebounds, 7 steals, 2 blocks, 5 assists
18-24 FG, 8-9 FT

Ewing had plenty of playoff moments, but this was probably his very best, Game 4 of an opening-round series in which they’d beat the Celtics 3-2 after dropping the first two games. He also held Boston Hall of Famer Robert Parish to 10 points. It was certainly the peak performance of the pre-Riley portion of his career.

Jason Kidd, May 2, 2002
(Nets 120, Pacers 109)

52 minutes, 31 points, 8 rebounds,
7 assists, 4 steals, 9-9 FT

Kidd had other games with better numbers, but never in a moment like this, with the Nets on the verge of disaster when Reggie Miller hit a 35-foot 3 at the buzzer to force OT. Kidd simply wouldn’t let the Nets lose do-or-die Game 5 and afterward he looked like he’d gone 15 rounds with Ali.

“This,” he said, “was like running a marathon in boots.”