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Kevin Durant had perhaps the best game of his career in the Nets' Game 5 win over the Bucks.
Durant was reportedly bitter that he was never considered the NBA's best player.
With many stars now out of the playoffs, it's Durant's time to shine.
Absent LeBron James and the usual spotlight he commands, Kevin Durant has the chance to shine in the playoffs.
And shine he did on Tuesday.
Durant poured in 49 points on 16-of-23 shooting to go with 17 rebounds and 10 assists to help a short-handed Brooklyn Nets take a 3-2 series lead over the Milwaukee Bucks.
With Kyrie Irving out with a sprained ankle and James Harden returning (but still limited) from a hamstring injury, Durant had taken center stage: he would have to carry the Nets.
It's one thing for a superstar player to meet expectations - Durant shattered them. His victorious 40-point triple-double was just the seventh ever in NBA history. The performance was widely regarded as the best playoff game of Durant's career, with some calling it one of the best playoff performances of all time.
In a most unusual postseason, with typical stars injured or out of the running, Durant staked his claim for the best player in the NBA, something he has reportedly coveted.
Durant has been tired of being No. 2 for a long time
In 2013, Durant told Sports Illustrated that he was "tired of being second."
"I've been second my whole life," Durant said. "I was the second-best player in high school. I was the second pick in the draft. I've been second in the MVP voting three times. I came in second in the Finals. I'm tired of being second. I'm not going to settle for that. I'm done with it."
That feeling persisted for some time.
The Athletic's Ethan Strauss wrote in 2019 that after Durant joined the Golden State Warriors in 2016, he won two straight titles and back-to-back Finals MVPs, out-playing LeBron James in the process. Durant felt he didn't get the recognition he thought he deserved for winning his battles with James.
"Sources say that Durant believed his besting of LeBron James in the 2017 Finals would get him hailed as the game's top player, a mantle he's craved for some time ... Instead, there was no grand reordering of rankings, and only so much credit to be had for a dominant playoff run. KD, who was 'tired of being second' way back in 2013, was still stuck there reputationally, even in ultimate victory. He was still behind LeBron in the eyes of pundits, basketball Twitter, and perhaps most importantly, at Nike, who's employed Durant longer than any team.
Perception is crucial in the NBA. Durant had been the best player in those series, but he was also on a stacked Warriors team featuring Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. He had made a 73-9 team seemingly unguardable. Though James played alongside stars like Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, the perception was still that he had to do more to carry his team.
Durant's pursuit of the title took a hit when he tore his Achilles in the 2019 Finals. It seemed as if Kawhi Leonard momentarily took the crown, leading the Toronto Raptors to the championship, then capturing the NBA's collective attention with his free agency move to the LA Clippers - a move that seemed to draw more attention than Durant's move to the Nets.
With Durant missing all of the 2019-20 season to recover from his torn Achilles, James once again climbed back to the top by leading the Lakers to the championship while in the bubble.
A lost season for Durant and the mystery surrounding how he'd look after a torn Achilles left him out of sight, out of mind for much of the NBA world.
Durant has returned with a vengeance while other stars have faltered
At last, it is not very hard to argue that Durant is now the best player in the NBA.
He has shown virtually no rust in returning from his year-long absence. While he played just 35 games this season, missing time for various reasons, when he was on the floor, he was his typically dominant self, averaging 27 points per game on an efficient 53-45-88 shooting line.
Durant has long been regarded as the NBA's best scorer. But he is much more than just a scorer. He makes easy reads to set up teammates. His length allows him to be a pest on defense. He may not be a primary ballhandler like James, but he can control the game's tempo.
A player who has long made opponents throw up their hands in frustration over their inability to defend him now has multiple ways to impact the game, as he showed in Game 5.
Meanwhile, the competition around Durant has faltered this season.
An ankle injury-plagued James through the playoffs and the Lakers were eliminated in the first round. At 36, it's fair to wonder if James has finally begun his decline.
Two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo has been out-classed by Durant in the playoffs. His limits as a No. 1 option on offense have been visible, as he struggles to create his own shot at the end of close games.
This year's MVP, Nikola Jokic, was swept out of the second round.
MVP runner-up Joel Embiid has admirably played through a torn meniscus. Still, his Philadelphia 76ers trail the Atlanta Hawks 3-2 in the second round. He, too, has had fourth-quarter struggles in that series.
Luka Doncic posted historic numbers in the first round but could not help the Dallas Mavericks close out the LA Clippers.
Curry had one of the greatest offensive seasons in NBA history but still could not carry his team to the playoffs.
Leonard may still have a case as the league's best player, but he is now out with a knee strain.
For now, the spotlight is Durant's. Each successive game only offers him more opportunity to establish himself as the premier force in the league.
Read the original article on Insider