Nets-Bucks takeaways: Kevin Durant, James Harden lead Brooklyn to thrilling win over Milwaukee

We are less than a month into the season, yet to a rare degree, we can say that we have already watched the game of the year. The Brooklyn Nets hosted the Milwaukee Bucks in a heavyweight performance on Monday, and in a game that was close, Khris Middleton walked away with a thrilling 125–123 win after winning the 3-pointer game at the buzzer.

Kyrie Irving missed the festival, but the stars who were available were put on a show. Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant-James Harden Tandem gave the Nets 64 points, 18 assists and 15 rebounds, while Milwaukee’s three-headed monster Middleton, Giannis Antetoconpo and Junior Holiday gave Buck 81 points. In the end, the role players were the difference. Defeating the Nets when they score 34 out of Joe Harris and Jeff Green is nearly impossible, and of course, the Bucks have just come up short.

This was the first time we saw these two illustrious people going head to head, but this would not be the last. Apart from more than a couple regular-season dates on the schedule, these two are favorites to reach the Eastern Conference Finals and exit for a shot at the championship. Here are four things you should take away from tonight’s thriller, which is ahead of a possible playoff matchup.

1. Milwaukee could not take advantage of Brooklyn’s weaknesses

The Nets may have the most perimeter talent of any team in NBA history, but the value of keeping it safe was depth everywhere. Jeff Green has remained minimal, but he debuted in power tonight. DeAndre Jordan has been a negative-value player so far this season and even sold himself before Jarrett Allen was out in the Harden deal, but he is the only legitimate NBA center on the roster.

This gave the Bucks a fairly simple blueprint for beating the nets: kill them inside. Milwaukee was the NBA’s best rebounding team last season. He allowed the fewest shot attempts in the restricted area and produced a repeat MVP-winner, shooting more than 82 percent within a three-foot basket so far this season. Brooklyn is going to win the fight behind the Arc the most nights. Milwaukee overcome this with proper internal dominance.

Yet the Nets outscored the Bucks, 49 to 41. He scored between 52 and 50 more points in the paint. If he works in the postseason, it is over. The Nets are going into the finals. Their shooting and shot-making are great for them when they are winning inside as well.

Give credit where it is due. Jordan, who struggled for most of the season, gave the Nets 38 great minutes on Monday. Brooklyn won those minutes by five points and tied Antetokompompo for the game with 12 rebounds. More to the point, he proved to be a real deterrent to Giannis as a driver, forcing him to take six 3-pointers and several mid-range jumpers. It makes sense. The common strategy against Giannis is to build a wall of defenders at the rim. Well, Jordan has very limited mobility at this time in his career. Some big guys like Anthony Davis will eat him alive. But given his size and ambition, he is practically a human wall, and that made life very difficult for Giannis and the Bucks in this game.

2. The Bucks finally found some clutch offense

Milwaukee should be encouraged on some fronts, but none more than their closed offense. Entering tonight, the Bucks were ranked 12th in clutch scoring per 100 possessions. Before that he was in his 11th season and eighth year, and in both cases, he fell in the postseason when Giannis could not make shots. But in the last five minutes of this game? He scored 13 points.

Now, some of those points were fluky. For example, two of them were going out of bounds rather than actively rebounding Durant’s ball. Giannis’ main problem is an insufficient late-game producer still exists.

But Middleton’s continued improvement with Holiday’s presence as a secondary producer gave Milwaukee enough options to reliably score points. Having two complementary stars of their quality makes it easy for Giannis to find off-ball usage, such as screening in pick and roll. An elite late-game offense is not an offense for the Bucks, but they proved tonight that they can score points against the team they must beat to reach the final.

His real offensive issues came from the bench, who took 7-of-23 shots from the field and scored only 19 points. When one or more stars are on the bench, the Bucks likely need another manufacturer. It doesn’t have to be a star, but in the Lou Williams-Derrick Rose class, any “old point guard who can score 20 on a random night” would be very, very helpful. He signed DJ Agustin, saying he could be that player. In a game of this magnitude, it seems that he cannot be.

3. Mike Badenholzer continues to make the same mistake

Milwaukee lost to Miami as host for a whole host of reasons, but Mike Budenholzer’s dogged commitment to his old defensive scheme was huge. He stayed with drop-coverage all year and was destroyed by Miami shooters. He refused to increase the workload of his best players and his back could not compensate. But worst of all, he refused to move close to his Defensive Player of the Year guard Miami. Jimmy Butler kills the Bucks in the fourth quarter, while Giannis watches helplessly as a shot-blocker stunned by his chance.

Give some credit to Budenholzer: at least he appreciated the horrors of the moment. Giannis played 40 minutes against the Nets, the first time he has done so in any non-overtime regular-season game under Budholzer. But still, his coach refused to tell him about the opponent’s best player. Giannis was not guarding Durant when he countered, and sure enough, Durant dropped the game-winning dagger with a second to spare. Antetokounmmpo was on Jeff Green in the corner.

Durant was protected by Middleton and Holiday for most of the game. Middleton is a good defender and Holiday is a brilliant one, but not enough size to compete with Durant with a seven-foot shooter. Entetokenmpo and his 7-4 wingspan. A charitable read on the situation is that Budenholzer is saving that weapon in his back pocket for a playoff rematch, but after the Miami series last season, it’s very hard to believe. Would Giannis have changed Durant’s dagger enough to give Beans a game? We’ll never know, but for Milwaukee’s sake, hopefully Budenholzer didn’t repeat the mistake when it counted.

Fortunately for the Bucks, he may have no choice. Irving’s return makes the Nets even more dangerous, but it realizes the matchup in a way that could force Budenholzer to stick Giannis over Durant. Who else is he guarding? He cannot chase Joe Harris on screen all night. His two star guards are too little for him to be able to guard all night. If he is defending the center of Brooklyn, what is Brook Lopez doing? We can see this matchup right now.

4. A lot is not going on in the game

It may seem counterproductive in a story to extend the takeaways from tonight’s game … but this singles matchup is likely to be taken far away. Irving’s absence obviously makes a big difference, but in fact, the variance is why the game means so little in the grand scheme of things.

At the end of Brooklyn, the Nets lost the turnover battle 17–5. This is quite understandable. Harden is still keeping pace with the team’s new teammates. Jordan, susceptible to the strait, played more minutes than before and spun the ball five times by himself. They were missing their starting point guard. Milwaukee should win the turnover battle in this series, but not nearly that much.

Where the Bucks can rest is knowing that Brooklyn can never get them out of this bad way. The Nets hit 15 of their 31 3-pointers, good for over 48 percent. The Bucks went 11–37 for nearly 29 percent. Entering on Monday, Buck was making 41.1 percent of his 3-pointers. It was not sustainable, but no team should ever expect to lose the entire series for an 18 percent margin in 3-point shooting. The Nets are a better shooting team than the Bucks, but no more.

How much does this regression mean on each side? Well, we don’t know. The truth is that fate plays a much larger role in the postseason than anyone can accept. The Bucks can warm up and hit half of their 3-pointers in four matches and sweep the Nets. They can strike a cold streak as they did against Miami last season and entertained themselves. Both teams have time limits and a need to step into the buyout market despite their limited resources.

This creates an early salvo on Monday. The Nets took Round 1. Round 2 is yet to be determined, but will come later in the season. And then the big ones will come in June. The Nets should be favored after their win tonight, but a lot can change between now and then. The Eastern Conference is still very high up to the graves.

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