8:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Bucks -3, Over/Under: 219
My, oh my, what a difference a week can make as momentum has shifted in this Eastern Conference Semifinal, as the (Three Seed) Milwaukee Bucks look to press their advantage on the road at the decimated (Two Seed) Brooklyn Nets, who look to avoid a third consecutive defeat in this, Game Five from Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. When you hear tonight’s matchup described as pivotal, that’s not hyperbole, folks, it’s fact; when a series is tied at two games apiece, the winner of Game Five goes on to win the series 82.8% of the time (164-34). This is something that the Bucks (46-26, 3rd in Eastern Conference) are all-too familiar with, for it was only two short years ago when they found themselves in the shoes of their opponent; after winning the first two games of the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals, Milwaukee would go on to lose four consecutive outings to the (eventual NBA Champion) Toronto Raptors, including a tightly-contested Game Five at home (105-99). That failure was just one of many in the postseason that this franchise is desperately attempting to overcome; despite owning the best record in the National Basketball Association in each of the two previous seasons, and possessing (two-time MVP and 2019-2020 Defensive Player of the Year) Giannis Antetokounmpo (28.1 PTS, 56.9% FG, 30.3% 3FG, 11.0 REB, 5.9 AST, 1.2 STL, 1.2 BLK, 29.2 PER) along with (two-time Coach of the Year) Mike Budenholzer, the Bucks have been met with premature defeat in each of the last two Playoffs, and as a result spent much of this past offseason in an attempt to make the requisite adjustments to get over the proverbial hump. To his credit, Budenholzer changed his tactics, instituting more switching on the defensive end of the hardwood, while also acquiring more defensive-minded, two-way players that could fill multiple roles within his system. (Veteran Point Guard) Jrue Holiday (17.7 PTS, 50.3% FG, 39.2% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 6.1 AST, 1.6 STL, 20.0 PER) arrived via trade, representing a major upgrade over his predecessor, while (improved Forward) Bobby Portis (11.4 PTS, 52.3% FG, 47.1% 3FG, 7.1 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.8 STL, 19.9 PER) and (veteran tough guy) P.J. Tucker (2.6 PTS, 39.1% FG, 39.4% 3FG, 2.8 REB, 0.8 AST, 0.5 STL, 5.7 PER) have injected some sorely-needed steel and attitude into the rotation. Armed with reinforcements, Milwaukee has spent much of this postseason run exercising their demons, having already swept the (reigning Eastern Conference Champion) Miami Heat in a merciless First Round Sweep, outscoring them by an average margin of 20.5 points per game with the last three chapters of the series being decided by a staggering EIGHTY points. Miami exploited the cracks in their armor in the Bubble, sending them packing in a Gentlemen’s Sweep, but were completely overwhelmed against this current iteration of Budenholzer’s charges, setting up what many have felt was to be a de facto NBA Final against the Nets. Needless to say, the momentum that these deer had built in the previous series would not carry over to this Semifinal, for Brooklyn absolutely confounded them in Games One and Two; Milwaukee was downright unrecognizable in these matchups, with none of the adjustments that they had made throughout the campaign present, punctuated by an embarrassing 39-point drubbing in Game Two in which they were held to a season-low eighty-six points on 44.0% shooting from the field, including a dismal 8-of-27 from beyond the arc (29.6%), with more turnovers (16) than assists (14). So it’s with that said that Budenholzer went back to the drawing board in an attempt to devise something to slow down one of the most formidable offensive groups in the league, and to the surprise of many, it has actually worked. In Game Three, the Bucks would return the favor and relegate the nets to their lowest-scoring effort of the campaign, surviving a dogged 86-83 affair in which they blew a 21-point lead, with the aforementioned Holiday, who struggled throughout the night with just nine points on 4-of-14 shooting (28.6%), put them ahead for good via a driving layup with 11.4 seconds left on the clock. Thankfully, Game Four wasn’t nearly as stressful, though the hosts would rally back from an early 11-point deficit, with a Second Half in which they outscored the visiting side 54-48. Milwaukee earned this victory in two major areas that they had struggled with in the earlier entries of this series, finally finding their touch from the perimeter (16-of-47 3FG) and exploiting their opponent off of turnovers. Budenholzer’s troops outscored the visitors by eighteen points from three and manufactured twenty-five points off of seventeen turnovers, which in turn allowed them to own a commanding advantage in terms of fast break points (20-6). Poor shooting from the charity stripe (5-of-10 FT) and long range (1-of-5 3FG) aside, Antetokounmpo put forth his most impressive performance of the series thus far, totaling thirty-four points on 14-of-26 shooting overall (53.8%), with a dozen rebounds and three assists. (Sharpshooting Forward) Khris Middleton (20.4 PTS, 47.6% FG, 41.4% 3FG, 6.0 REB, 5.4 AST, 1.1 STL, 18.2 PER), who had struggled mightily in this matchup, added nineteen points on 7-of-15 shooting (46.7%), while playing the role of playmaker with eight assists. Holiday would contribute with fourteen points and another nine dimes, while the aforementioned Tucker finally made an impact with thirteen points in just under thirty minutes of action, after posting a scant nine points in the previous three games.
Meanwhile, as dominant as they appeared to be in the first two games of this series, the Nets (48-24, 2nd in Eastern Conference) are in very real danger of their once commanding advantage slipping through their collective fingers, for a loss tonight will subsequently see them facing elimination. How did it come to this, you ask? Well, to the surprise of absolutely no one their sudden struggles can be attributed to health and availability. Brooklyn became the latest franchise to adopt the strategy of amassing superstars in order to build a champion when they acquired (2017-2018 MVP) James Harden (24.6 PTS, 47.1% FG, 36.6% 3FG, 8.5 REB, 10.9 AST, 1.3 STL, 0.8 BLK, 25.0 PER) in a massive four-team blockbuster back in Mid-January, pairing the three-time scoring champion with (2013-2014 MVP) Kevin Durant (26.9 PTS, 53.7% FG, 45.0% 3FG, 7.1 REB, 5.6 AST, 0.7 STL, 1.3 BLK, 26.4 PER) and (seven-time All-Star) Kyrie Irving (26.9 PTS, 50.6% FG, 40.2% 3FG, 4.8 REB, 6.0 AST, 1.4 STL, 24.4 PER), forming the NBA’s latest Big Three. Though immediate results followed, with the team putting together a stellar 41-18 record the rest of the way, (first-year Head Coach) Steve Nash was rarely ever able to count upon having all three stars at his disposal at the same time; Durant, Irving, and Harden spent only EIGHT games together on the hardwood during the Regular Season, with Durant missing thirty-seven games to quadriceps and hamstring strains, and Harden for twenty-one of the final twenty-four games of the schedule due to an ailing hamstring of his own, while Irving… well, he was out of action for eighteen games for a variety of reasons. All three were healthy in the Nets’ gentlemen’s sweep of the Boston Celtics in the First Round, but this series with the Bucks has been a different story altogether; Harden reaggravated that tender hamstring mere minutes into Game One and hasn’t suited up since, while Irving departed Game Four’s defeat on crutches with a sprained ankle, with Nash already stating that he’ll be out of action for tonight’s affair at the very least. Needless to say, this is quite the turn of events, folks. Brooklyn has been formidable enough with only two of their Big Three in action, but only fielding one of them seems like a massive issue for the Nash & Co. Think about it for a moment, folks, for Harden and Irving combine for a whopping 51.5 points, 13.3 rebounds, 16.9 assists, and 2.7 steals, with their collective absence meaning that this team will be without a considerable amount of firepower for an indefinite period of time. Nash lamented his side’s offensive issues in Game Three’s narrow 86-83 defeat in which they were relegated to a season-low eighty-six points on 36.2% shooting, including 8-of-32 from beyond the arc (25.0%), with just fifteen assists and attempting a scant eight free-throws. As it turned out they were only marginally better in the ensuing contest, shooting 43.4% overall, 10-of-33 from downtown (30.3%), and 14-of-18 from the charity stripe (77.8%). Apart from Irving’s departure, the biggest issue in this particular outing was their inability to take care of the basketball, committing nearly as many turnovers (17) as assists (20), which Milwaukee was all too happy to convert into twenty-five points. Essentially, Brooklyn, a team that enjoys fluid ball-movement with both Harden and Irving operating as if they had the basketball on a string, are now operating without their two primary ballhandlers and distributors, with Nash now forced to rely upon other members of the rotation to facilitate the attack. During the season, the Nets ranked seventh in assists (26.8) and thirteenth in turnovers (13.5), though over the last two games they’ve managed only 17.5 assists, which is a very significant drop-off. The unheralded pairing of Bruce Brown (8.8 PTS, 55.6% FG, 28.8% 3FG, 5.4 REB, 1.6 AST, 0.9 STL, 16.1 PER) and Mike James (7.7 PTS, 37.0% FG, 35.5% 3FG, 2.5 REB, 4.2 AST, 0.5 STL, 11.9 PER) will be asked to fill the void left behind by Harden and Irving, and though they’ve each surprised during various stretches of the campaign, doing so under the pressure of the postseason is another matter altogether. In all likelihood, the fate of tonight’s affair (and likely the remainder of the series) will be in the hands of Durant, who is the lone superstar left healthy enough to make a difference. The 32-year old shifted the balance of power two summers ago when he arrived as a Free Agent following an outrageously successful three-year tenure with the Golden State Warriors which netted him a pair of Larry O’Brien trophies and Finals MVP awards. However, his last days with the franchise were far from ideal as he suffered a serious calf injury midway through the Playoffs that later turned into an Achilles tear in the NBA Finals, which would cause him to miss the entirety of his first season under contract with the Nets. Apart from missing nearly half of this season (though much of that appeared to be load management), the four-time scoring champion looked like his old self, shooting a career-high 53.7% from the field and 45.0% from three, while also playing a major role on the defensive end with 7.1 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks for a side that has oftentimes struggled to defend the paint. After averaging 32.6 points per game in the previous series against the Celtics, Durant has logged 29.8 points on 45.8% shooting, including 34.6% from the perimeter, along with 9.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.8 steals, and 1.3 blocks in the past four games versus the Bucks. Unfortunately, in these two losses Milwaukee has managed to key on him defensively, with the 32-year old getting his points (29.0) but shooting only 37.7% overall and 25.0% from long-range in the process, while committing nearly as many turnovers (4.5) as assists (5.0). With Harden and Irving sidelined, one would have to expect that they’ll continue to throw the kitchen sink at him, making it all the more imperative that someone else take a stand, otherwise a series that only a short time ago appeared to be on the verge of turning into a sweep will have a very different outcome altogether.