When it was announced that Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant would return to action prior to Sunday's main event between the Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets, you knew we were in for a good one.
In a game that had the feel of an Eastern Conference Finals matchup with both teams near full strength, the Bucks pulled off the home win 117-114.
Antetokounmpo and Durant put their best foot forward with the entire NBA universe watching, as the two MVPs went off for 49 points and 42 points, respectively.
But what did we learn in this down-to-the-wire showdown?
Antetokounmpo is playoff-ready
Giannis (49 PTS & 9 REB) went OFF against the Nets ♨️ pic.twitter.com/JcTaSOSgGC- NBA TV (@NBATV) May 2, 2021
The reigning back-to-back MVP has delt with some nagging injuries down the home stretch of this season but this performance proves he's ready to go when needed. Antetokounmpo missed six-consecutive games back at the start of April with a knee injury but made a strong return after that. He played in seven-straight games thereafter, but suffered an ankle injury in the Bucks' stunning loss to the last-place Houston Rockets this past week.
Antetokounmpo missed one game with that ankle injury but was able to suit up for this contest. It was unclear if there would be any minutes restriction or limitations, but it was evident that would not be the case early on.
With the bright lights of a Sunday afternoon primetime nationally televised game, the Greek Freak put forth his best performance of the season to the tune of 49 points, eight rebounds, four assists, three blocks and one steal.
He was in attack mode all game long, attempting a career-high 36 field goal attempts (converting 21 of them for an efficient 58.3 field goal percentage).
Dueling with arguably the greatest scorer the game has ever seen in Durant, Antetokounmpo made it clear in this playoff-like atmosphere that he is healthy enough to elevate his play to another level when the time comes.
Kevin Durant is back back
Giannis, KD went at it in today's Eastern Conference showdown. 🔥🍿@Giannis_An34: 49 PTS, 3 BLK, W@KDTrey5: 42 PTS, 10 REB, 7 3PM pic.twitter.com/2ffwr3er7J- NBA (@NBA) May 2, 2021
And speaking of injuries, Durant has been on and off the Nets' injury report all season long, but it seems that the former MVP is also back to his usual self.
In a heavyweight bout against Antetokounmpo, Durant was equally as impressive in going off for 42 points, 10 rebounds and two assists while shooting 16-for-33 from the field and 7-for-13 from 3-point land.
The superstar forward sat out on the second night of Brooklyn's back-to-back games on Friday, but he was never in question of being available for this marquee matchup. This marked the second-consecutive game that Durant played in that he dropped 42 points, giving the Indiana Pacers 40-plus earlier this past week.
The 11-time All-Star missed two months of action from February to April with a serious hamstring strain, coming on the heels of his Achilles injury that forced him to miss the entire 2020-21 season. He played in four games following his return from that injury before a thigh contusion kept him sidelined for another three games. He has since returned in full - back-to-backs aside - and whenever the four-time scoring champ has been on the floor, he has dominated in typical Durant fashion.
Including this contest, over his last four games since returning from his thigh contusion, Durant is averaging 33.7 points, 7.7 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.3 steals while shooting a blistering 57.8 percent from the field, 54.5 percent from 3 and 93.8 percent from the free-throw line.
Holiday vs. Irving is the matchup we didn't know we needed
Two things we did know: Kyrie Irving is a near-impossible cover for just about any player in the league and Jrue Holiday is an All-Defensive Team-calibre defender.
So what happens when an unstoppable force hits a brick wall?
This time, Holiday won the battle.
Irving was still productive for normal standards, going for 20 points, seven rebounds, six assists and two steals, but he shot 38.1 percent from the field and 25.0 percent from 3.
Holiday was Irving's primary defender and while NBA.com's matchup data for this contest is not available just yet, the eye test tells you that he played a major role in Irving going 8-for-21 from the field and 2-for-8 from 3 with four turnovers.
It would be interesting to see if Holiday would defend Irving or James Harden in a potential playoff matchup between these two teams (assuming Harden would be healthy by the time these teams would meet), but who wouldn't love to see seven games of an offensive maestro versus a defensive stalwart?
A collision course to a playoff matchup
If the season ended today, the Bucks and Nets would see each other in the Eastern Conference Semifinals if they both made it out of the first round.
With the loss, Brooklyn falls to second place by way of a tiebreaker with the first-place Philadelphia 76ers with seven games left on its schedule. With the win, Milwaukee puts itself just 2.5 games back from the No. 1 seed in the East with eight games remaining on its schedule.
There is still plenty of time for the standings to change, but one way or another, these two teams could be on a collision course to a potential playoff matchup.
If the Nets stay in second and the Bucks remain in third, it would be in the East Semis. If Milwaukee stays put in third but Brooklyn overtake's the No. 1 seed in the East, it could potentially be an Eastern Conference Finals meeting with the winner going to the NBA Finals.
Either way, if a playoff series would be anything like the game we saw today, sign me up.
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