7:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Nets -2.0, Over/Under: 243.5
A rematch of last summer’s epic Eastern Semifinal is on tap tonight in the Big Apple, as the Brooklyn Nets play host to the reigning NBA Champion, Milwaukee Bucks, from Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. With little over a week left in the regular season and the East still completely WIDE-OPEN, the Bucks (47-28, 2nd in Eastern Conference) still seem like the surest thing out of the wealth of contenders that have been jockeying for postseason positioning over the past two months. After winning their first Larry O’Brien trophy in fifty years, there was a feeling that Milwaukee had all the makings of going on a prolonged run and following a slow start to their title defense they have certainly rounded into championship form. Stumbling out of the gates to a 6-8 record was understandable for a team that was clearly fatigued following their run to the Finals, only for their top three performers, (two-time MVP) Giannis Antetokounmpo (29.9 PTS, 55.2% FG, 30.1% 3FG, 72.2% FT, 11.6 REB, 5.8 AST, 1.0 STL, 1.5 BLK, 32.4 PER) along with (All-Stars) Khris Middleton (20.4 PTS, 44.6% FG, 37.9% 3FG, 88.8% FT, 5.4 REB, 5.4 AST, 1.1 STL, 18.6 PER) and Jrue Holiday (18.6 PTS, 50.5% FG, 41.4% 3FG, 76.4% FT, 4.5 REB, 6.8 AST, 1.6 STL, 20.0 PER) to immediately hop on a plane to compete in the Summer Olympics, altogether leading to a second consecutive abridged offseason for the team. As a result, that triumvirate didn’t spend much time together on the hardwood throughout the first half of the campaign; Antetokounmpo, Middleton, and Holiday featured together in just TWENTY of the team’s first FIFTY games this season, but since then have made twenty starts together over a 25-game period, in which the club has gone a stellar 15-5 with them on the court and 17-8 overall. Simply put, these three are the foundational pieces of the franchise, with each individual able to score, create, and defend with aplomb, all the while complementing one another perfectly. However, (Head Coach) Mike Budenholzer can also attribute this return to championship form to the further evolution of the supporting cast, which has received a major boost in the form of (veteran Center) Brook Lopez (10.3 PTS, 42.9% FG, 35.3% 3FG, 83.3% FT, 3.6 REB, 0.8 AST, 1.1 BLK, 12.6 PER), who has returned to health following a lengthy absence. After missing SIXTY-EIGHT games due to back to surgery, the 33-year-old has brought his length, physicality, and above all else, rim protection to a defense that sorely missed those features over the course of the campaign. In his absence, Milwaukee added (veteran big man) Serge Ibaka (6.8 PTS, 50.5% FG, 35.3% 3FG, 80.0% FT, 5.1 REB, 0.6 AST, 0.4 BLK, 13.5 PER) to the mix at the Trade Deadline, while also enjoying the continued growth of (versatile Forward) Bobby Portis (14.6 PTS, 47.5% FG, 39.9% 3FG, 75.0% FT, 9.1 ERB, 1.2 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.8 BLK, 17.7 PER) and (sparkplug Guard) Greyson Allen (11.2 PTS, 44.5% FG, 40.9% 3FG, 85.7% FT, 3.4 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.7 STL, 12.7 PER). In a similar mold to Lopez and Ibaka, Portis is an ideal fit within Budenholzer’s system, operating as a Stretch-4 or Small-Ball 5 who slots in perfectly alongside Giannis on the offensive end, while sporting the requisite length and physicality to defend the rim and battle on the boards. After playing for three different teams in two years, the 27-year-old landed in Milwaukee last season and played an important role in their run to the O’Brien trophy, and with Lopez sidelined for so long, has taken full advantage of the opportunity to show and prove, logging career-highs in a slew of categories including minutes (28.4), points (14.6), three-pointers (125), rebounds (9.1), and blocks (0.8). And if anyone needs to be convinced of this group’s pedigree in big games, we’d like you to divert your attention to Tuesday night’s narrow 118-116 victory over the new-look 76ers at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. Two of the four teams separated by a single game at the top of the East, the two powerhouses came to blows in a heavyweight battle in which each combatant flexed their muscles in establishing a lead of double-digits. However, it would be the visitors who OWNED the fourth quarter; trailing 89-81 heading into the final period of play, the Bucks would go on to EVISCERATE the Sixers’ defense on 13-of-18 shooting from the field (72.2%), including 4-of-7 from beyond the arc (57.1%), and 7-of-11 from the charity stripe (63.6%), with that aforementioned triumvirate of Antetokounmpo, Middleton, and Holiday combining for thirty-one points on 11-of-14 shooting (78.5%). The Greek Freak finished the night with FORTY points on 16-of-24 shooting (66.7%), with fourteen rebounds, six assists, and three blocks, the last of which was by far and away the most important play of the game; with the hosts trailing by two points in the contest’s waning moments, James Harden launched the potential go-ahead trey only for the ball to come down into the hands of (MVP frontrunner) Joel Embiid who stood in front of the rim, with his game-tying attempt swatted away by Antetokounmpo, sealing the victory. Though both teams shot the ball well, particularly from downtown, and more than made an impression at the free-throw line, Budenholzer’s troops earned the win on the ability to push the tempo, outscoring the home side 20-11 in terms of fast break points, as Giannis proved once again to be the determining factor. As a result, the Bucks find themselves still hot on the heels of the Heat for first place in the East with seven games left to play before the playoffs begin in two weeks’ time, clinging to a one-game lead over the 76ers and Celtics. Tonight’s meeting with the Nets will be the fourth since their epic, seven-game series last summer, with Milwaukee taking the first two encounters this season before narrowly falling in a 126-123 affair little over a month ago; despite a combined EIGHTY-FOUR points from Antetokounmpo, Portis, and Middleton, and Brooklyn without the services of Kevin Durant (more on him shortly), the visitors rallied back on the strength of thirty-eight points from Kyrie Irving (much more on him too).
Meanwhile, oh, what a season this has been for the Nets (40-36, 8th in Eastern Conference) up to this point, who after suffering through a perilous 3-17, have begun to turn things around and reassert themselves as (at the very least) a dangerous opponent come the playoffs. So, let’s try to keep this as simple as we can, shall we? Well, Brooklyn entered the campaign as the betting favorite to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy, which would be a first for the organization in any of its incarnations since joining the National Basketball Association back in the 1977, powered by the most prolific triumvirate of stars in the league in the form of Kevin Durant (29.7 PTS, 52.1% FG, 37.5% 3FG, 90.7% FT, 7.3 REB, 6.1 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.9 BLK, 25.9 PER), Kyrie Irving (27.0 PTS, 47.7% FG, 41.7% 3FG, 90.9% FT, 4.3 REB, 5.7 AST, 1.3 STL, 0.7 BLK, 22.3 PER), and James Harden (22.5 PTS, 41.4% FG, 33.2% 3FG, 86.9% FT, 8.0 REB, 10.2 AST, 1.3 STL, 0.7 BLK, 20.7 PER). However, just as it was during their first run together, fate would deny them of any prolonged period of time together with a variety of factors playing into matters. First, Irving’s refusal to receive the COVID-19 vaccine coupled with New York City’s indoor mask mandate that prohibited him from participating in games being played within city limits, meant that the gifted, yet mercurial Point Guard missed THIRTY-FIVE games of the season, before essentially becoming a part-time player only competing in road games. Appearing in just twenty-three contests thus far, the 29-year-old has never looked better, posting career-highs in a slew of categories including scoring (27.0) and three-point shooting (41.7%), exploding for FIFTY points in a blowout of the Hornets three weeks ago before erupting for a franchise record SIXTY points against the Magic a week later. Over his last nine outings, Irving has averaged 31.4 points on 51.3% shooting from the field, including 47.5% from beyond the arc. Thankfully, the Mayor of New York City finally lifted the mask mandate, allowing Irving to participate at Barclays Center, which must feel like a godsend for (Head Coach) Steve Nash and his charges, allowing everyone to finally put this saga to rest and prepare for the postseason with what looks to be the healthiest that this rotation has been in quite a while. However, it does beg the question: are the Nets truly a better team with Irving on the hardwood? Brooklyn is 30-23 without his services in comparison to 10-13 with him in the rotation. However, those numbers don’t tell the whole story, for many of those wins in which he was prohibited from playing came when the aforementioned Harden still counted himself a member of the club. Bristled by his teammate’s dogged resistance towards vaccination, the former MVP and three-time scoring champion demanded to be traded, ultimately being shipped to Philadelphia in exchange for (another mercurial talent) Ben Simmons, along with (sharpshooter) Seth Curry (15.1 PS, 49.2% FG, 47.6% 3FG, 88.9% FT, 2.6 REB, 2.7 AST, 1.0 STL, 15.0 PER) and (veteran Center) Andre Drummond (12.3 PTS, 62.9% FG, 53.2% FT, 9.9 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.9 BLK, 23.7 PER). Needless to say, there is an awful lot to unpack here, but we’ll keep it short. Following a disastrous showing in the playoffs, Simmons effectively abstained from playing for the Sixers this season, citing his mental health in forfeiting nearly $20 million. Though his versatile talents slot ideally alongside Durant and Irving, there is still no timetable for his debut, and at this point it is unlikely that he’ll participate in the postseason. On the other hand, Curry and Drummond have acquainted themselves nicely in Brooklyn, with the former offering dead eye shooting and precious spacing, while the latter’s size, rebounding, and rim-defense have made him a valuable addition to a rotation previously starved of such qualities. So, with six games to go it appears that the Nets immediate playoff future lies in the play-in tournament, whereas in all likelihood the eighth seed, will be granted two opportunities to advance to the playoffs proper. Brooklyn trails Cleveland by two full games and is only a half-game ahead of Charlotte and a full game ahead of Atlanta in the pecking order. This is significant because if they happen to get out of the play-in, they will be pitted against either the first or second seed, which in this case has a 50% chance of being the very same Bucks who eliminated them last summer and have bested them twice already this season. Fortunately for them, the remaining schedule is far from daunting, with only three of their final seven opponents sporting a winning record. When we last saw the Nets, they struggled to put away the feisty Pistons in a 130-123 affair at Barclays, which saw the hosts ultimately resort to outgunning an opponent once more. The hosts shot a torrid 55.3% from the field, including 15-of-28 from beyond the arc (53.6%), and a staggering 31-of-34 from the charity stripe (91.2%), equating to a sizable +20 advantage in that last regard. And it’s a good thing they did so much damage from the line, for they were made to pay for the nineteen turnovers, which turned into TWENTY-TWO points going in the opposite direction. In just his second game in front of a home crowd, Irving came back down to Earth with twenty-four points on a poor 7-of-18 shooting (38.9%), with more turnovers (6) than assists (4), but fortunately for everyone in attendance there was Kevin Durant to save them. The former MVP and three-time scoring champion erupted for a game-high FORTY-ONE points on an efficient 14-of-23 shooting (60.9%), including 4-of-6 from downtown (66.7%), and 9-of-9 from the free-throw line (100.0%), along with eleven rebounds, five assists, and three blocks. Simply put, when this guy is performing at this level, the Nets are going to be a handful for anyone, no matter the matchup, setting up what should be an entertaining play-in tournament and an absolutely salivating first round of the playoffs.