7:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Bucks -2, Over/Under: 242
With just twelve days remaining in the Regular Season, a pair of eastern titans are set to meet for the second time in three days as the Milwaukee Bucks play host to the Brooklyn Nets in a battle of the two highest-scoring sides in the National Basketball Association, from Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. If the Nets (43-22, 2nd in Eastern Conference) are to secure the No. One Overall Seed in the East (and the perks that come with it), then they’re going to have to roll up their proverbial sleeves and get down to business over these final seven games, for the race for the top of the conference remains as tight as ever. Coming into tonight’s matchup Brooklyn trails Philadelphia by a half-game in the standings, which is important since the Sixers own the tiebreaker on the strength of winning the season series (2-1). Why is finishing in first place so significant, you ask? Well, with the triumvirate of super teams at the top of the East, ensnaring the top seed would guarantee that said team wouldn’t have to meet one of the other two until the Conference Finals, while those who finish in second and third place would potentially meet in the Conference Semifinals, followed by an eventual date with whomever is the first in the next round. Never has postseason positioning been so important, and of all the true contenders it’s no more significant than for the Nets, who still need all the time they can can in order to develop the requisite chemistry to make a lengthy run. Since engineering the NBA’s latest blockbuster trade to acquire (2017-2018 MVP) James Harden (25.4 PTS, 46.7% FG, 36.1% 3FG, 8.7 REB, 11.0 AST, 1.3 STL, 0.7 BLK, 25.0 PER) back in mid-January in a seismic deal involving three other teams, Brooklyn has gone a resounding 35-16, climbing to within striking distance of the East’s summit even though it’s been quite some time since they’ve bee able to count upon a fully healthy roster. Of course, this franchise made their intentions clear a year ago when they added a pair of All-NBA talents to the fold in the form of (2013-2014 MVP) Kevin Durant (28.1 PTS, 54.8% FG, 47.8% 3FG, 6.8 REB, 5.2 AST, 0.7 STL, 1.2 BLK, 27.2 PER) and (2015-2016 NBA Champion) Kyrie Irving (26.8 PTS, 49.9% FG, 38.1% 3FG, 5.0 REB, 6.3 AST, 1.3 STL, 0.6 BLK, 23.9 PER), looking to build the league’s next super team. Even with Durant missing all of last season following an Achilles tear in the 2019 NBA Finals, and Irving relegated to just twenty games in his first season in the Big Apple, this was a team poised to contend in the future, though nobody could have thought that they would be able to pull off the four-team extravaganza that was Harden’s acquisition, particularly during the middle of the season. However, that’s exactly what they did and they completely dismantled their rotation in the process, parting ways with promising young stars such as (Center) Jarrett Lee and (Swingman) Caris LeVert along with a cache of draft picks, all in an effort to team Harden together with Irving and Durant. Unsurprisingly, this group has evolved into a bonafide offensive juggernaut, averaging a whopping 118.7 points per game on 49.3% shooting from the field, including 38.7% from beyond the arc, along with 26.9 assists in comparison to committing just 12.8 turnovers. What has been surprising though is that they’ve been able to maintain this production with this latest Big Three rarely on the hardwood together; (Head Coach) Steve Nash has only been able to call upon Harden, Durant, and Irving in the same game on a mere SEVEN occasions, with each superstar missing their share of time. Durant missed twenty-seven out of twenty-eight games at one point with a tender calf muscle, while Harden has since missed sixteen of the last seventeen outings with a hamstring issue of his own, and following a setback in his recovery will continue to miss an indefinite amount of time. While it’s certainly a testament to Nash and his Coaching Staff for their ability to remain successful with their stars missing so much time, the concern is becoming that this group simply hasn’t spent enough time together to develop the requisite chemistry to compete for a championship. Sure, two out of three of Harden, Durant, and Irving is good enough to win games, and lots of them at that, but competing in a series is a different matter altogether, particularly when you consider some of the other issues that have been bubbling under the surface for months now. Chemistry aside, this team will score points, but they’ve been far from impressive on the opposite end of the court, where their defensive nous have routinely been tested; since acquiring Harden, the Nets have relinquished 114.7 points on 46.7% shooting from the field, including 36.7% from downtown, with 24.1 assists opposed to forcing just 12.0 turnovers. Neither Harden or Irving have ever been confused with being stoppers on defense, and after shipping out the aforementioned Lee, Brooklyn has been forced to rely upon a number of veterans to patrol the paint, be it DeAndre Jordan (7.7 PTS, 76.6% FG, 7.5 REB, 1.7 AST, 1.2 BLK, 17.4 PER), or Blake Griffin (9.7 PTS, 47.8% FG, 36.8% 3FG, 5.0 REB, 2.3 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.6 BLK, 16.4 PER) and LaMarcus Aldridge (12.8 PTS, 52.1% FG, 4.8 REB, 2.6 AST, 2.2 BLK, 18.3 PER), the latter two who were acquired as buyouts. Unfortunately, Aldridge’s stay with the franchise was all-too brief, playing in just five games before an irregular heartbeat caused the 35-year old to call it a career. Look for Nash to rely more upon (young Center) Nicolas Claxton (6.6 PTS, 58.3% FG, 5.0 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.8 STL, 1.2 BLK, 16.7 PER), who has impressed when given the opportunity while Jordan and Griffin continue to log starter’s minutes.
“Every day you wake up is about your craft… We’ve just got to stay locked in mentally to what we’re trying to do as a group.”Kevin Durant following the Nets’ narrow 117-114 defeat at the Milwaukee Bucks, in which he nearly carried them to victory in matching a season-high 42 points on 16-of-33 shooting from the field.
When we last saw the Nets, they came up short in what turned out to be very much a potential postseason preview in a 117-114 affair at the Milwaukee Bucks that featured two of the giants of the game trading blows. This one was pure box office with Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo (more on him in a bit) locked in combat in what was a showdown of MVPs. The visitors would jump out to an early 37-28 lead, but would gradually see the home side chip away at that advantage. Durant turned in one of his most impressive performances of the campaign a few nights after sitting out Brooklyn’s 19-point loss against the Trail Blazers on Friday Night, matching a season-high with forty-two points in the defeat, shooting 16-of-33 from the field (48.5%), including a ridiculous 7-of-13 from beyond the arc (53.8%), along with ten rebounds and a pair of assists, though he would account for five of his side’s sixteen turnovers. The eleven-time All-star would have an opportunity to send the contest into overtime, though he couldn’t connect on an arduous fadeaway three at the buzzer. As a team, the visiting side struggled on 47.2% shooting, though put in the majority of their work from downtown, where they stayed in the affair knocking down a stellar 17-of-42 three-pointers (40.5%). However, Nash’s side got a little too caught up in becoming spectators of Durant’s exploits, assisting on a mere eighteen of their forty-one field goals, in comparison to committing a total of sixteen turnovers, which would parlay into twenty points for the Bucks. The aforementioned Irving would finish with twenty points, but shot just 8-of-21 from the floor (38.1%), including 2-of-8 from three (25.0%), though did contribute in other areas with seven rebounds and six assists. Fellow starters (journeyman) Jeff Green (10.7 PTS, 47.7% FG, 38.6% 3FG, 3.9 REB, 1.7 AST, 0.6 STL, 12.4 PER) and (sharpshooter) Joe Harris (14.3 PTS, 51.1% FG, 48.0% 3FG, 3.5 REB, 1.9 AST, 0.7 STL, 14.6 PER) struggled the most, combining for only twelve points on a cumulative 4-of-13 shooting (30.7%), including 2-of-8 from the perimeter (25.0%). The bench though did perform well, with (young sniper) Landry Shamet (9.6 PTS, 41.6% FG, 39.3% 3FG, 1.9 REB, 1.6 AST, 0.5 STL, 10.8 PER) and the aforementioned Griffin accounting for seventeen and eleven points respectively, with the former drilling 4-of-7 triples (57.4%) and the latter adding seven rebounds. As they often have throughout the season, Brooklyn was hammered in the paint, where Milwaukee outscored them by sixteen points. Tonight’s rubber match between these teams will continue the Nets’ five-game road trip before ending the Regular Season at home for the final three contests. Apart from meetings with the Mavericks and Nuggets, the rest of their schedule is far from difficult, though it remains to be seen whether or not they will be able to return to full strength before the postseason begins.
Meanwhile, time is running out for the Bucks (40-24, 3rd in Eastern Conference) to climb any higher in the East, with just eight games left in the Regular Season. Heading into tonight’s contest, they currently trail the Nets by 2.5 games in the standings, and by extension the 76ers by three. Milwaukee and Brooklyn have split their two encounters thus far, and a victory tonight would grant (Head Coach) Mike Budenholzer’s charges the tiebreaker which could seriously come in handy in the event that they catch fire down the stretch. With that said, even if they don’t capture the No. One Seed in the East for a third consecutive season, the train of thought surrounding them this season is that they aren’t quite the same team that they were over the previous two campaigns, though that may not necessarily be a bad thing. You see, despite going a ridiculous 116-39 (.748) from 2018 to 2020, this team flamed out in the Playoffs on both occasions even though they were heavily-favored in each series in which they fell. They also possessed the MVP of the NBA over that period of time, with (All-NBA Forward) Giannis Antetokounmpo (28.4 PTS, 56.8% FG, 31.3% 3FG, 11.1 REB, 5.9 AST, 1.2 STL, 1.3 BLK, 29.4 PER) earning back-to-back honors, while also becoming only third player in league history to also take home Defensive Player of the Year honors as well, joining Hall of Famers such as Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan. When you do things like that in the Regular Season yet routinely come up short in the Postseason, you unfortunately earn a reputation for being a Regular Season monster, yet unable to adjust within the confines of a series against a proper, formidable opponent. As harsh as that may sound, it is the perception surrounding this team, though there may be reason to believe that they are indeed better equipped to dispel that belief this time around. Sure, they’re unlikely to enter the Playoffs with home court advantage, let alone in the East where both the Brooklyn and Philly have established themselves as dominant powerhouses in their own right, but everything they’ve done from a personnel perspective both during the Offseason and at the Trade Deadline indicates a group that is better prepared for the issues that they will be sure to face in a month’s time. After inking Giannis to the richest contract extension in the history of the Association (five years/$218 million), the Bucks added (veteran Point Guard) Jrue Holiday (17.3 PTS, 50.4% FG, 38.7% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 5.8 AST, 1.7 STL, 19.6 PER) in a trade with the New Orleans Pelicans, receiving a huge upgrade at the Point Guard position, which had become a real liability in the Playoffs of late. Replacing Eric Bledsoe, the 30-year old is nothing short of a venerable floor general who fits Budenholzer’s system far better than his predecessor did, featuring a more confident stroke from the perimeter (38.7%) and greater size and length to hound opposing guards on the defensive end of the hardwood. Holiday has helped steer the highest-scoring attack in the league at 119.3 points per game, which is really saying something when you consider the firepower that their direct competition in the East has. (Two-time All-Star Forward) Khris Middleton (20.4 PTS, 47.5% FG, 42.6% 3FG, 6.0 REB, 5.5 AST, 1.1 STL, 18.3 PER) has continued to grow with better playmaking around him, shooting a career-high 43.0% from beyond the arc, while developing into more of a playmaker in his own right, dishing out 5.6 assists, also a career-best. The same can be said for Antetokounmpo, who is dishing out a career-high 6.0 dimes, as the ball-movement and spacing in Milwaukee has proven to be a thing of beauty at times this season. The club would add further reinforcements at the Trade Deadline, acquiring (veteran Forward) P.J. Tucker (2.9 PTS, 45.2% FG, 47.6% 3FG, 3.2 REB, 0.5 AST, 0.5 STL, 7.0 PER) in an attempt to get tougher and more physical; the 35-year old has long been a 3&D specialist, and has proven to thrive in a set up like the one he has joined in Wisconsin, camping out on the perimeter offensively while getting his hands dirty on the defensive end. He should certainly prove his value once the Bucks get deeper into the Playoffs. With that said, when they do get to that stage of game, they’re going to need to prove that they’re able to create for themselves when they’re perimeter shooting betrays them. This is not a team that gets to the free-throw line very much, averaging just 20.7 attempts per game (26th Overall), and they still have a bit of a habit of clearing out the lane and relying upon Giannis to make something happen. Defensively, they’ve also been gashed by the money ball quite a bit too, though that has been by design as Budenholzer’s tactics flushes the basketball out to the corners where opponents have been all too happy to let it rain; the Deer have allowed the third-most attempts (38.7) and second-most makes (14.5) from downtown thus far at a rate of 37.6% (24th Overall). However, this is a team that does not give the opposition cheap points from the stripe, for while they don’t spend much time there themselves, only one team commits fewer fouls than the Bucks at a paltry 17.3 personal fouls a night, parlaying to just 14.5 free-throws on 18.4 attempts. You could see how that would aid them against a team like the Nets, with three superstars capable of getting to the stripe at will.
“Tonight that picture I created, that’s who I want to be moving forward. It doesn’t matter if I score 49 points. I don’t care about that. What I care about is how I slowed down, how I was able to find my teammates. How if I missed one, missed a second one, missed a third one and still be able to come down and shoot another one. This is what I believe I can be.”Giannis Antetokounmpo on his performance in Sunday’s 117-114 victory over the Nets, in which he nearly tied a career-high with 49 points on 21-of-36 shooting, including a surprising 4-of-8 from beyond the arc.
When we last saw the Bucks, they managed to outlast the Nets in an absolutely thrilling 117-114 victory over the weekend, thanks in large part to seismic performance from their two-time reigning MVP, Antetokounmpo. It’s seriously difficult to imagine the Greek Freak being more effective than he was on Sunday, nearly matching a career-high with forty-nine points on 21-of-36 shooting from the field, along with eight rebounds, four assists, and three blocks. However, the most surprising thing about his showing was how handled himself from the perimeter; a career 28.9% shooter from the perimeter, Antetokounmpo shot 4-of-8 from beyond the arc against Brooklyn (50.0%), which also turned out to be a season-high. Much has been made of what has long-been one of the only true weaknesses in his game, the four-time All-NBA selection is shooting 31.3% this season, which is an incremental improvement over previous campaigns, and would stand as a personal-best since his rookie year back in 2013-2014. The team as a whole though has little problem burying the money ball, netting 15-of-37 in this matchup with the Nets (40.5%). Middleton and Holiday netted a combined 6-of-15 treys (40.0%) en route to twenty-six and eighteen points respectively, with the former also amassing eleven rebounds, six assists, and a pair of steals. With that said, Budenholzer’s troops very nearly lost this affair at the charity stripe, where they could only make half of their paltry twelve attempts (50.0%) with only four players even attempting a free-throw. Candidate for Most Improved Player, Bobby Portis (11.4 PTS, 52.8% FG, 47.9% 3FG, 7.1 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.8 STL, 19.8 PER) missed the contest due to a stomach illness, while (veteran Point Guard) Jeff Teague (5.9 PTS, 45.3% FG, 22.2% 3FG, 1.6 REB, 3.0 AST, 12.4 PER) left the action early with a strained abdominal muscle, leaving the bench without much firepower to speak of, though Bryn Forbes (9.9 PTS, 46.6% FG, 44.3% 3FG, 1.6 REB, 0.6 AST, 12.6 PER) did contribute with twelve points on 4-of-7 shooting (57.1%). The rest of the schedule moving forward isn’t overly difficult for Milwaukee, who will enjoy six of their final nine outings at home, with only one game against opponents currently possessing winning records, for after tonight’s clash with Brooklyn none await them with a record above .500.