It’s another hoops-heavy column for me as the NBA Playoffs roll on, the league released its All-NBA squads and college basketball recruiting continues to heat up. Let’s get to it.
First, basketball fans who tuned in to game five between Brooklyn and Milwaukee witnessed an all-time performance by Nets forward Kevin Durant. Two years after rupturing his Achilles, Durant exploded for 49 points on 16-of-23 from the field (4-of-9 from 3) and 13-of-16 from the free-throw line, 17 rebounds, 10 assists, three steals and two blocks while playing all 48 minutes in Brooklyn’s come-from-behind win against Milwaukee.
At the 6:20 mark of the third quarter, the Bucks led 76-60. Then Durant took it strong to the rim, sparking a 54-32 finish for the Nets. Durant scored 31 of that 54, and he did it in every possible way. Milwaukee just didn’t have any answers.
When Durant went down during the 2019 Finals, it was fair to wonder if we’d ever see vintage KD ever again. Medical science has progressed far enough that ACL tears are no longer career-altering injuries for many players, but Achilles tears are a different story. DeMarcus Cousins is a perfect recent example of a player who just isn’t the same post-Achilles recovery. That Durant is still capable of performances like this is a blessing for basketball fans everywhere.
What makes the performance even more legendary is Brooklyn needed every bit of it to take the upper hand in this series. With Kyrie Irving in street clothes, James Harden trying to play on one leg (he scored five points on 1-for-10 shooting in 46 minutes) and a double-digit deficit into the third quarter, Steve Nash sensed he couldn’t risk taking Durant off the floor even for a second. Durant answered the bell, and not only did he not let fatigue affect him, he actually saved his best basketball for the fourth quarter.
We’ve seen some incredible performances throughout the first two rounds of the playoffs, but it’s hard to say any of them deserve to rank ahead of what Durant did on Tuesday night, and the remaining stars are going to have a tough time clearing that bar moving forward.
Milwaukee-Brooklyn is one of three series that will go at least six games. Only my Phoenix Suns are at home with their feet kicked up, waiting to learn their opponent for the Western Conference Finals after sweeping the Denver Nuggets.
Chris Paul’s game four performance didn’t quite match up to what Durant did in game five, but it was incredible in its own right. He dropped 37 points on 13-of-19 from the field and 9-of-9 from the foul line at 36 years old, ruthlessly torching Denver’s drop coverage over and over again to get to his spots. His overall numbers from the series are absurd, especially his assist-to-turnover ratio. There’s a reason he’s called the Point God.
Paul stole the show in the closeout game of the Western Conference semis, but his backcourt partner, Devin Booker, was the star of game six against the Lakers, going off for 47 points on 15-of-22 (including a career-best 8-of-10 from 3) and 9-of-9 from the charity stripe with 11 rebounds and three assists as the Suns knocked out the reigning champions.
I wrote last month about planning to savor every second of the Suns’ playoff run no matter what happens, but the more I see, the more I start to think “Why not Phoenix?” With Paul and Booker staking their claim as the best backcourt in the NBA, Jae Crowder’s veteran experience and Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton elevating their games, it’s starting to look like the Suns have as good a shot at winning the whole thing as anyone.
Although after watching Durant do what he did on Tuesday, I feel slightly less confident than I did before despite the Nets potentially not having their big three at full strength for a possible Finals matchup.
Durant certainly looked like the best player in the game on Tuesday, but after playing just 35 games during the regular season you won’t see his name on any of the All-NBA Teams the league released on Tuesday. Those teams are as follows:
- First Team: Stephen Curry (Golden State), Luka Dončić (Dallas), Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee), Kawhi Leonard (L.A. Clippers) and Nikola Jokić.
- Second Team: Chris Paul (Phoenix), Damian Lillard (Portland), LeBron James (L.A. Lakers), Julius Randle (New York) and Joel Embiid (Philadelphia).
- Third Team: Kyrie Irving (Brooklyn), Bradley Beal (Washington),Paul George (L.A. Clippers), Jimmy Butler (Miami) and Rudy Gobert (Utah).
Among the players who just missed out was Boston Celtics wing Jayson Tatum. Because he did not make an All-NBA Team, his recent contract extension will remain at 25% of the cap, which means he missed out on a $33 million bonus. That’s tough, but the depth of talent at the top was incredible and there were only 15 spots available. Guys like Donovan Mitchell (who missed out on the same bonus as Tatum) and Devin Booker, the leading scorers for the two best teams in the league, phenom Zion Williamson, triple-double king Russell Westbrook and defensive force Bam Adebayo are all on the outside looking in, as are Durant and James Harden because they missed so many games.
But the big problem here is Tatum actually did receive enough votes to make the third team. The structure of the voting, however, cost him that spot. The league made him eligible at both guard and forward on the ballot, and although he received more total votes than Irving he received more votes as a forward than as a guard, so thats where the league slotted him and he didn’t have enough points to supplant either of the forwards on the third team.
So the league provided flexibility in the voting process, but didn’t extend that same flexibility to the back end? What sense does that make?
The big issue here is that contract status is tied to these All-NBA teams. Again, Tatum lost out on $33 million because more media members voted for him as a forward than as a guard. I’ve seen many voters go on record as being uncomfortable that they have a direct hand in how much money the players are eligible to make. There has to be a better system than this.
I’ll wrap this up by touching briefly on recruiting. As of 11 p.m. CT Monday night, Division I coaches are allowed to reach out to and have direct contact with 2023 prospects for the first time. A year ago, both local high-major schools made 4-star Grand Island wing Isaac Traudt a priority, calling him on that first day to extend a scholarship offer.
The local 2023 class doesn’t have any players on the same trajectory as Traudt or Hunter Sallis. Most of the calls in-state kids received on Tuesday were from mid-major schools. Nebraska did reach out to Lincoln North Star forward Brennon Clemmons Jr., the son of a former Husker, but Clemmons still has some work to do to make himself a high-major recruit.
Instead the Huskers have focused their early 2023 recruiting efforts on some talented national recruits, a few of which (Simeon Wilcher, Omaha Biliew, Gus Yalden) have already visited campus unofficially.
Nebraska will continue to host visitors the rest of this month, and then once July hits the grassroots live periods will kick in and the coaches will get a chance to hit the road to evaluate in person for the first time in two years.
For local basketball fans, one of those big-time live period events will be coming to the Omaha Metro as Omaha Sports Academy will host an Adidas 3SSB tournament July 16-18.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.