Forty-three lousy seconds. Forty freakin’ three. The Nets’ Big 3 could not even make it through one minute of what was expected to be a series for the ages with the Bucks before James Harden took that lonely walk off the court and down the tunnel, disappearing into the night.
Who knows how long Harden will be gone, and how long the Nets can survive without him? His coach, Steve Nash, said after the Nets’ 115-107 victory in Game 1 that he didn’t have the results of an MRI exam on Harden’s injured right hamstring, which cost him 18 straight games near the end of the regular season. Anyone who has ever injured a hamstring at any level of sport understands how easy it is to hurt one, and how hard it is to fully recover from one.
But after the first act of the Eastern Conference semis, this much was clear: Harden’s injury — deflating as it might be — presents a legacy opportunity for Kevin Durant as big as the Barclays Center and as wide as KD’s wingspan.
Durant finished Game 1 with 29 points and 10 rebounds. Kyrie Irving finished with 25 points and eight assists, including a sweet-music, over-the-shoulder pass to Durant on the break that led to a dunk and a 107-93 lead with 6:24 to play, nearly blowing the roof off the place.
Remember, in the summer of 2019, it was supposed to be Durant and Irving alone leading the Nets to a championship after Durant returned from his devastating Achilles injury. Harden wasn’t part of the plan back then. And he might not be part of the plan right now.
Before Nets fans were even comfortable in their seats, Harden executed a crossover dribble on Jrue Holiday, drove to the basket as Brook Lopez came over to help, and grimaced as he jumped and fired a high-corner pass to Joe Harris. Harden grabbed at his right leg as he walked out of bounds, then kicked out his leg as if to shake something off in front of the Bucks’ bench. He ignored his assignment on the next play.
After the Bucks opened the scoring on the other end, the Nets called timeout with 11:17 left, and Harden was done.
“I’m heartbroken for him,” Nash said.
Said Durant: “It just sucks. I want him to be out there. I know how much he cares. I know how much he wants to be in this moment. … It’s just a bad situation, man. I hate that it had to happen to him right now.”
Before the Nets put Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks in a 1-0 hole, Durant said something interesting on his podcast in the wake of the conquest of the Celtics. He revealed that he is starting to “tally mark the matchups” with great players he has faced in the playoffs, including Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Tim Duncan, and that Boston’s 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 an 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.
Irving, a Nets fan while growing up in New Jersey, won one with James in Cleveland and now desperately wants to nail down a second for the hometown crowd. But if Durant can beat Antetokounmpo in this best-of-seven, he will be the biggest winner, since he will go down as the most significant historical figure of the Big 3.
It will be fascinating to see how he performs against the Greek Freak the rest of the series, though Nash said the Nets will cover the reigning two-time MVP by committee. It had better be a hell of a committee. Antetokounmpo, who averaged 39.6 points and 10.6 rebounds against the Nets in three regular-season games, finished with 34 points and 11 rebounds Saturday.
“It’s cool to compete against the best at this stage, this part of the season,” Durant had said. “It’s always fun challenging yourself against some of the best.”
As much as LeBron James is chasing Michael Jordan, who is probably uncatchable, Durant is chasing James, who is also probably uncatchable. But this is the big-picture game that superstars play. Durant 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.
A fragile hamstring needed just 43 seconds to compromise the mission. But on the legacy scoreboard, if the Nets can eliminate Antetokounmpo’s Bucks, Harden’s pain might be Kevin Durant’s gain.