THE Brooklyn Nets survived the regular season without their “Big Three” of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving consistently on the floor at the same time to get the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
They were not anticipating being forced to survive postseason games without multiple members of their trio, but Brooklyn now faces that scenario and an entirely new series against the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Nets will be down to Durant on Tuesday night when the Eastern Conference semifinals shift to Brooklyn for Game 5.
Nets coach Steve Nash said on Monday that Irving will not play due to a sprained ankle he suffered in Game 4. Harden will also sit out Game 5 as he continues to recover from a hamstring injury.
The series is tied at two games apiece and the home team is unbeaten. The winner of Tuesday’s game will get a chance to close the series in Milwaukee on Thursday and advance to the conference finals. Game 7, if necessary, would be Saturday in Brooklyn.
The Nets have played virtually the entire series without Harden, who suffered right hamstring tightness in the opening minute of Game 1. Then they lost Irving to the ankle sprain on Sunday when he landed awkwardly on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s foot after hitting a layup in the second quarter.
Brooklyn did not announce the severity of Irving’s ankle injury but multiple reports stated he left the arena with crutches and a walking boot.
With their trio down to Durant, the Nets gradually allowed Milwaukee to surge ahead and even the series with a 107-96 victory. Durant scored 28 points but shot 9 of 25 from the floor and had little help as Irving’s 11 points were the second-highest total for the Nets, who shot 43.4 percent, missed 23 of 33 3-point tries and committed 17 turnovers.
The worst-case scenario of being down to Durant is occurring after the Nets had their stars on the floor together for eight regular-season games. All three played in the five-game series against the Boston Celtics in the first round, and the Nets posted four double-digit wins. They got an eight-point win in the series opener against Milwaukee before posting a 39-point win in Game 2.
“We’ve had an adverse season,” Nash said. “A lot of things have happened, we remained positive and that’s what got us through the season, so we have to have that same mentality here and find a way to solve some puzzles and persevere.”
Milwaukee hopes the things that proved successful in the previous two games can help them get a chance to clinch the series on Thursday. The Bucks survived nearly blowing a 21-point lead to post an 86-83 victory in Game 3 and then pulled away in the third in Game 4 when Antetokounmpo scored 12 of his 34 points.
“We’re very happy, but we’ve got to keep getting better, keep playing together and hopefully we can go into Brooklyn and take one,” Antetokounmpo said.
Khris Middleton has performed well in the past two games after a nightmarish start to the series.
Middleton shot 13-of-43 and missed 10 of 13 3-point tries in the first two games. In the past two games, he has scored 54 points on 19-of-40 shooting and hit six 3-pointers.
Perhaps an even more significant development from Sunday is the return of Milwaukee’s 3-point shooting. The Bucks shot 38.9 percent during the regular season but were 20 of 88 from 3-point range in the first three games until Sunday when they made 16 of 47 tries.
Milwaukee also has tightened up defensively by becoming the first team to hold the Nets under 100 points in consecutive games. A major contributor is P.J. Tucker’s increasing physicality on Durant, who was 20-for-53 shooting in the past two games, which prompted Nash to describe it as “borderline non-basketball physical.”
“He’s just guarding him,” Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said. “If that’s not basketball, I don’t know what is. We just gotta keep the same mindset to guard (Durant), to make everything tough, so nothing changes. P.J. is a very good individual defender. Puts a lot of time in studying film work, understanding tendencies and those things. It’s just guarding.” — Reuters