Giannis Antetokounmpo showdown about legacy for Kevin Durant

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Kevin Durant said something interesting on his podcast, in the wake of the Nets’ playoff conquest of the Celtics. He revealed that he is starting to “tally mark the matchups” with great players he has faced in the postseason, including Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Tim Duncan, and that young Jayson Tatum is now worthy of inclusion in the group.

This is how the all-timers keep score in every sport — with head-to-head comparisons, including totals of titles won. Durant, 32, is still climbing the leaderboard. He has two championship rings, and now a great opportunity to close the gap on James, who has no chance this summer — after his Lakers were expelled by the Suns — to add to his four.

First, however, Durant must beat Giannis Antetokounmpo in a second-round series that started Saturday night at Barclays Center. The advance billing on Nets-Bucks is fairly simple: the Nets’ Big 3 against the Greek Freak. But years down the road, when NBA historians set out to “tally mark the matchups” and rank the legacies of this generation’s stars, Nets-Bucks might be reduced to a one-on-one question:

Did Durant beat a younger fellow titan in Antetokounmpo on his way to another ring?

All the Nets’ top players have something to prove here. James Harden has never won a title. Kyrie Irving, who was a Nets fan growing up in New Jersey, won one with LeBron in Cleveland and now desperately wants to nail down a second for the hometown crowd.

But Durant can be the biggest winner, since he will go down as the most significant historical figure of the three. Right now, Durant can claim to be among the three greatest small forwards ever. When I suggested recently that he had a chance to leapfrog Larry Bird into the two-hole, right behind James, the dean of all NBA writers, Bob Ryan, was among the readers who all but tossed a water bottle at my head.

Nets
Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo will square off in the second round of the NBA playoffs.
Corey Sipkin

Durant at least belongs in that conversation on the merits, even if part of his story will always be his choice to sign with the ready-made Warriors a little more than a month after they had bounced his Thunder from the 2016 Western Conference finals. One forgotten part of the Durant narrative arc — after absorbing intense criticism for his Golden State signing — is the way he carried an ultra-vulnerable Team USA to Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, when the Americans didn’t have Kobe Bryant or LeBron James to lean on.

Durant had started out in the USA Basketball program years earlier as a retreating star who was admonished by his head coach, Mike Krzyzewski, for constantly looking at the floor when they spoke. A forceful KD finished his Olympic run with a 30-point explosion against Serbia in the gold-medal game, inspiring the exasperated Serbian coach to tell his American counterparts, “There was nothing we could do against him.”

With the loaded Warriors, and now with the loaded Nets, Durant has had no trouble imposing his will on teammates and opponents alike. It will be fascinating to see how he performs against Antetokounmpo, though Durant won’t be guarding the reigning two-time MVP full time.

“We’re going to have to cover him by committee,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. Without Jeff Green’s versatility in Game 1, that had better be a hell of a committee. Antetokounmpo averaged 39.6 points and 10.6 rebounds against the Nets in three regular-season games.

“It’s cool to compete against the best at this stage, this part of the season,” Durant said. “It’s always fun challenging yourself against some of the best. These battles have made me a better player, raised my awareness out there on the court by playing against such great teams and also great players and coaches. So it’s another opportunity to just go out there and enjoy the moment. Every moment out there you get to play is incredible. So when you’re out there with the best players in the world, MVPs and Defensive Players of the Year, it just makes it even better.”

As much as James is chasing Michael Jordan, who is probably uncatchable, Durant is chasing James, who is also probably uncatchable. But this is the legacy game superstars play, and a primary reason Durant teamed up with Irving before Harden came aboard. KD understands he will be judged on the number of trophies in his case. He gave himself a chance to beat James in two Golden State-Cleveland finals, and now in Brooklyn he has given himself a chance to cut his 4-2 ring deficit to 4-3.

Meanwhile, this Nets-Bucks series should be a blast.

“It’s going to be a showdown,” Harden said. With the Greek Freak on the other side, Durant is the one Big 3 member with the most to gain.

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