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Defensive Heroics Made For A Wild Night In The NBA And NHL Playoffs

Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 and Thanasis Antetokounmpo #43 of the Milwaukee Bucks celebrate the win of game seven of the Eastern Conference second round at Barclays Center on June 19, 2021 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The Milwaukee Bucks defeated the Brooklyn Nets 115-111 in overtime to win the series.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Jrue Holiday contested the shot that Kevin Durant missed that ended the gloriously dysrhythmic and ultimately just glorious Milwaukee Bucks-Brooklyn Nets series, so that’s the play that gets to define all the series postmortems. Because of that play (and yeah, about 100 others in a game so sensational that its only flaw was that it happened two series too early), Milwaukee draws either Philadelphia or Atlanta in the attritional Mardi Gras that is the Eastern Conference Finals. And Brooklyn goes home with a devastation so sudden that it will sting the participants for years.

Ryan Pulock gets no such leeway because the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning series is just now getting serious, but defense is defense, and saved games are saved games. And Pulock, the Islanders defenseman who righteously cheated Tampa’s Ryan McDonagh out of a sure game-tying goal 2.2 seconds left in regulation by diving across the goal line behind his stranded goaltender Semyon Varlamov and sweeping the puck away with his gloves.

And what that got the Isles is at least two extra games with last year’s Stanley Cup champion in a series that has been as drumhead taut as Bucks-Nets had been. It didn’t make Pulock, one of New York’s best players this postseason, anything more than the guy who saved an overtime—which under normal circumstances would have earned him our condemnation under the Overtimes Are Better Than Not-Overtimes strictures. After all, Bucks-Nets had gone to overtime, largely because Durant hit a standard-brilliant 23-footer from the right arc with 1.6 seconds left in regulation to tie the game at 109, thus making the end of the game all the more incandescent.

The plays in tandem made for two brilliant games. Bucks-Nets was a better game from start to finish, but the Pulock play was better than anything else all day, even the Brook Lopez block on a Durant drive with 59 seconds left in overtime. Durant’s 48 points in 53 minutes put numbers on the most valiant performance anyone anywhere produced, but Pulock’s dive was a more improbable single deed than anything Bucks-Nets created. Everyone got all the emotional abductions they could have asked for on both ends.

And in the end, the Bucks and Islanders and Nets and Bolts made moments that ought to live longer than they will. In the playoffs, the moments and minutes and circumstances and new heroes and villains pile up on each other too fast for the what-did-I-just-see culture to absorb, process and file away rationally among all the other events to come. Milwaukee moves on, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was healthily ripped as a highly publicized fraud after the Nets won Game 2 by a thousand points, revealed himself to be just as forceful and dominant (40/14 in a game that required all of each) as he has been advertised for years. Against all that, Game 7 of Hawks-Sixers is tonight.

And Pulock, not to be confused with his defense partner Adam Pelech, has to go back to Tampa with his teammates for Game 5, because the series just started the moment he hosed McDonagh, saved Varlamov and made a tense series potentially as epic as Bucks-Nets. That is, until the next epic thing comes along, which it will. These playoffs may be weird and injury-ravaged and momentum-defying, but Saturday was worth all the embarrassing takes that led up to them. We’re still a month away from all the collated moments of a year that seems unrepeatable until, of course, next year.

But yeah, Saturday. It can’t be repeated, but it did some proper work. In other words, Sunday’s got no chance.

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