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Kevin Durant scores 42 but misses game-tying three as Nets fall to Bucks, 117-114

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Giannis Antetokounmpo dropped 49 points, Kevin Durant dropped 42, and the Nets fell just short against the Bucks on Sunday afternoon.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

It was a playoff preview for the ages but one that didn’t go Brooklyn’s way.

Kevin Durant led the Nets with another 42-point outing but the Nets fell short with KD missing a game-tying three and Milwaukee defeated Brooklyn, 117-114. With the loss, the Nets fall to 43-22 on the season while the Bucks improve to 40-24, With the loss, Brooklyn dropped out of the first seed by 5/100th of a point.

Later, Ben Simmons tipped in a buzzer beater and the Sixers beat the Spurs. So at the end of the night, the Nets are a half game back of Philly and two and a half ahead of Milwaukee. The three are separated by three games in the loss column. Nets have seven games left, 76ers and Bucks eight each.

“We didn’t shoot the ball very well. We weren’t sharp and got a little stagnant at times. We turned the ball over a ton, unforced turnovers. They’re a good defensive team,” Nash said. “We scored 114 points and didn’t shoot the ball well, turned it over all the time. I think it’s more about us playing a little better, a little sharper, taking care of the basketball. We were a little better in the second half in that respect.”

The game was knotted up at 90 heading into the final 12 minutes of play. Brooklyn stuck first, forging a 6-2 run behind KD and Blake Griffin, but Milwaukee capitalized off the Nets carelessness, flipping a 13-point turnaround to take a 106-101 lead with 6:01 remaining.

Milwaukee relied on two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who finished with a game-high 49 points on 21-of-36 shooting from the field and 4-of-8 from deep, extended their lead to 113-109 entering the final three minutes of play.

“I think we can live with that,” Nash said on Antetokounmpo shooting. “What we can’t live with is all the dunks, offensive rebounds, transition buckets. You live with the shooting. He had 50, we had a shot to tie and didn’t play well. Although he was sensational tonight, I think the game plan was fine and it’s all the other things we can clean up in order to give ourselves a better chance.”

While Antetokounmpo was paving the way for the Bucks, Durant was doing the same for Brooklyn both down the stretch ... and throughout the contest. Durant, who finished with a season-high 42 points on 16-of-33 shooting from the field and 7-of-13 from behind the arc to go with 10 rebounds and two assists in 40 minutes of play.

“He carried us in long stretches. I think we struggled offensively with our rhythm and our timing, our connectivity. We got a little stagnant when we probably wanted to go 1-on-1 more often. He kept us in the game offensively at different times,” Nash said on Durant’s performance. “Kevin is Kevin. He’s one of the best to ever do it.”

Irving, who finished with 20 points, seven rebounds and six assists but shot only 8-of-21 including 2-of-8 from three, hit a contested 26-foot three from the right wing off an Antetokounmpo block on Durant. That brought the Nets within three with 1:53 remaining. Irving then hit another tough driving layup with 57 seconds remaining to keep the Nets within three.

Khris Middleton, who scored 10 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter, snagged a defensive rebound off Durant’s 29-foot 3-point attempt and dribbled it up the floor. Middleton, distracted by Irving’s defense, had to heave up a 29-foot three with the shot clock winding down. He missing the dagger and Durant came up with the defensive rebound with 3.9 seconds remaining.

Nash called a timeout to advance the ball past halfcourt. Brooklyn had one last chance, inbounding to Durant, he missed from deep three as Milwaukee escaped with the win.

“Yeah, they had an opportunity to foul so we couldn’t get too cute with the play. We just tried to get him a catch and get a shot off. He got a shot off. It looked like he stumbled a little bit and didn’t quite have his footing, but Kevin with the ball in his hands on the top of the key looks good to me,” Nash said on Durant’s game-tying look.

Irving was content with the looks the Nets got down the stretch. The Nets guard handed praise to the Bucks after the loss for their defensive efforts.

“You just got to give credit. Everybody is a professional basketball player out there and wants to win so, they are going to do everything possible to limit our opportunities for both teams. We give them credit in terms of getting stops down the stretch but we feel pretty comfortable in terms of the shots we got as well. Very makeable shots. Lot of 50-50 basketballs.,” Irving said. “Just limiting them to one possession shots, I felt like we would be in a better position. You got to give them credit and we feel comfortable with the shots we got as well.”

Landry Shamet provided a boost off the bench, finishing with 17 points, three rebounds and two assists in 28 minutes.

“Pace. He plays with pace, movement, handles the ball, shoots the ball in draw-and-kick so, just that ability to knock down a domino or knock down a second domino where they’re changing their rotations being a shooter who can create and make the first pass or the second pass,” Nash said on Shamet. “I love that relentless pace and energy he played with.”

DeAndre Jordan, who guarded Antetokounmpo for the majority of the contest early, had 10 points and 11 rebounds in 24 minutes.

“No, I think it’s more cleaning up the time we weren’t in our schemes. DJ did a good job. I think when he was on him, keeping him away from the basket to make him score over the top of him. That’s fine. We can live with that,” Nash said on Jordan’s defense on Antetokounmpo.

DeAndre Jordan gave his take.

“You stuck with our game plan. Like I said, you gotta give him credit. He knocked down some tough shots tonight. He was forced into some tough turnaround jump shots. But at the end of the day, we’ve still gotta be able to contest and make him at least think about taking those shots. We have to do a better job individually and collectively make him think about those shots.”

Joe Harris did not have one of his best games, shooting only 2-of-7 overall, 1-of-5 from three. Same with Jeff Green, who took over the job of guarding Antetokounmpo late, had only seven points, taking six shots.

Nash started the game shuffling his relatively healthy lineup, but things progressed, he limited the rotation. KD wound up playing nearly 40 minutes, Irving 37, Harris 35 and Green 34.

The Nets opened the contest with Jordan on Antetokounmpo, who scored the first six points for the Bucks. While Jordan had difficulty defending the two-time MVP, he hung with him and delivered on the offensive end. The Nets big man provided good minutes in the early going with seven points and three rebounds in seven minutes.

It was a sloppy start from Brooklyn’s superstar duo. Durant appeared sluggish early with Middleton on him. KD opened the game with two points on 1-of-4 shooting from the field and two turnovers but Jordan’s hot start lifted the Nets to an early 16-11 lead with 7:08 remaining.

The first in fact was mostly Nets. Brooklyn’s offense started to flow and used a solid defense to hold the Bucks to only eight points in the final four minutes of play. Durant gathered his footing — hitting a series of pullup jumpers but the turnovers piled up.

While Brooklyn spread out their scoring, having five players finish with five or more points, Milwaukee banked on their “Big Three” of Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Chris Middletown who combined for all 28 of their first-quarter points, trailing 37-28 after one.

The Nets started the second without Irving or Durant and struggled to create looks. On the other end, the Bucks built up a 11-0 run forcing Nash to put Durant back into the contest. KD didn’t take long to restore the lead, forging a 5-0 run to lift a 42-34 lead.

Milwaukee controlled the momentum throughout the remainder of the second, capitalizing on Brooklyn’s 11 first-half turnovers — five from Durant — translating to 13 points. While turning defense into offense, Antetokounmp started to find his rhythm with Jordan on him and hitting the daring mid-range shots to finish with 20 points on 9-of-15 shooting from the field in 15 minutes. The Bucks erased the 14-point deficit and hit the break nursing a three-point lead behind the play of their “Big Three” that combined for 49 of their 62 points.

Irving and Durant combined for 28 of Brooklyn’s 59 first-half points but their offense was stagnant in the final minutes of the second. The Nets concluded the half shooting 44.7 percent from the field and 41.2 percent from deep but needed to clean up their sloppy play in the second half.

Antetokounmpo took over in the third frame. The Nets didn’t double or send help on the Bucks reigning MVP, leaving Jordan in single coverage. While Antetokounmpo was leading the charge, the Bucks made the Nets work for every shot and making it difficult to create space.

Aside from Milwaukee making Brooklyn work for their shots, Durant and Irving lifted their scoring production and Shamet served as the x-factor for the Nets in the third.

The intensity was high, possibly portending a playoff series. Players started to jaw with officials and the physicality between the two clubs rose. Durant ended the third with 31 points on 13-of-24 shooting from the floor while Antetokounmpo registered 38 points on 17-of-26 shooting from the field. Brooklyn took advantage when Antetokounmpo was on the bench, outscoring Milwaukee 9-6 in the final four minutes of the third frame to head into the final 12 minutes knotted up at 90.

A great game but a loss.

One elevating moment

Blake Griffin, who didn’t dunk for 464 days in Detroit, is making up for lost time in Brooklyn. We’ve seen a lot of them, but today’s putback of a KD three may have been the most old-school Blake dunk yet.

Not quite Lob Borough, but close.

Griffin also took a charge from Giannis Antetokounmpo in the game, extending his league lead. Here’s Nets PR on Griffin’s prowess standing tall in the lane.

The Film Room

Milwaukee is a fantastic defensive team. Stocked with defenders to throw at Brooklyn’s 7/11 duo — PJ Tucker, Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, Donte DiVincenzo, um, GIANNIS — the Bucks came equipped with counters to throw at the hub of Brooklyn’s offense. And with all of those outstanding defenders, Milwaukee was also stuffed with help should any of its primary options get burned by Brooklyn’s stars.

You see that here, as Khris Middleton allows Kevin Durant to go middle, where he’s met by the help of Giannis Antetokounmpo lurking nearby as well as Donte DiVincenzo, who blocks Durant’s Dirk-leg fadeaway shot.

Now, it didn’t help that the Nets didn’t exactly play to attack Milwaukee’s weaknesses. Rather than attacking the Bucks with ball-screens to eviscerate Bucks center Brook Lopez in drop coverage, the Nets instead force-fed post touches to its stars... to attack perhaps the strongest aspect of Milwaukee’s scheme: individual defense. Not great. The Nets also refrained from going “mismatch hunting” by involving Milwaukee’s weaker defenders (namely, Bryn Forbes) in screening actions to coerce favorable switches.

In fact, the only time we really saw Brooklyn take advantage of Milwaukee’s scheme was when Blake Griffin was in during the fourth quarter. Here, he dribbles up the floor and flips right into a dribble-handoff with Landry Shamet, setting a screen on Shamet’s man (Donte DiVincenzo) to put him behind the play. Why, you may ask? Well, Brook Lopez is in a drop coverage and does not step up to Landry on the pull-up three. That’s part of the scheme.

If there’s anything the Nets can improve on when they play Milwaukee on Tuesday, it’s taking advantage of the (modest) holes in the Bucks’ defense. We need this as a playoff series. Like, ASAP.

Steve Nash on Nicolas Claxton: ‘More ramp-up needed’

Even after being listed as “active” on Brooklyn’s status report while traveling with the team to Milwaukee, Nicolas Claxton received was DNP-CD against the Bucks. This shouldn’t have necessarily come as a surprise; the plan was to deploy the 22-year-old only in emergency situations.

“He’s available but I’ll definitely decide whether it’s absolutely necessary to play him,” said Steve Nash. “With the amount of time he’s had out, I hope I don’t have to throw him out there to protect him, but he’s available.”

What is Nash protecting the young center from? Injuries. As a reminder, Claxton just came off the health and safety protocols list for the lengthiest stay of any Brooklyn Net this season. On Friday, Nash pledged to commit Clax to “at least” a week of ramping up because of that.

“I would really love to have him for the playoffs,” explained Nash. “I wouldn’t want to jeopardize that by putting him too soon.”

The silver lining: It appears Nash sees Claxton as a playoff piece? That’s a good thing, right?

Waiting on Mike James decision

Mike James 10-day deal with the Nets expired Sunday night. The Nets can renew the deal for another 10 days but then must decide whether to offer him a standard NBA deal and make him eligible for the playoffs or simply let him go.

On Saturday, James seemed to signal that at least as of then he wasn’t certain what his fate would be.

James played five minutes Sunday, went scoreless but picked up an assist. Two nights ago, he had his best game with the Nets, a 15-point, three-assist effort. In those 10 days, a busy stretch for the Nets, James played six games, averaging seven points and four assists. Not bad considering he hadn’t played an NBA game in four years and hadn’t played in any game after leaving Moscow on March 30 following his suspension by CSKA Moscow.

James was signed April 23 because the Nets were short-handed at that point with James Harden and Chris Chiozza likely out for the regular season. Also, Tyler Johnson was then on the mend. TJ is back but Harden and Chiozza remain sidelined.

Nash was asked prior to the Bucks game if he thought James would be extended.

“That’s a question for Sean (Marks),” Nash replied. “I don’t want to comment on that, but we enjoyed having him for sure.”

Later Sunday, Marc Stein reported the Nets plan to extend James as early as Monday.

Numbers game

It was only the 14th time that Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have played together this season and the two are now only 7-7 together. And they finally broke the 300-minute barrier in number of minutes together on the court. And of course, they’re 5-2 when the “Big Three” play together. What does it all mean? Little. The sample is simply too small.

Before today’s game, the Nets had missed 241 player games to injuries, illness and health and safety protocols, fourth most in the NBA. The Bucks? 90, fewest in the NBA. That from Spotrac.

Kyrie helping out...

On Friday, Vanessa Bryant, Kobe’s widow, introduced a line of clothing wear named “Mambacita” after Kobe and Vanessa’s nickname for their daughter, Gianna who was also killed in the January 2020 California helicopter crash that took his life. Before today’s game, the Nets made like runway models entering the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee. Kyrie Irving decided to help out his late friend’s wife...

The Nets weren’t alone.

Gianna would have turned 15 Saturday.

As Sponge Bog might say...

What’s next

The Nets will remain in Milwaukee and face the Bucks on Tuesday, May 4. The game is scheduled to tip at 7:30 PM ET.

“Just another opportunity to get better to play against a high-quality team and try to improve. What can we take from them, what can we learn from them, what can we try to execute better in the next matchup,” Nash said on facing the Bucks Tuesday.

For a different perspective, check out Brew Hoop - our sister site covering the Milwaukee Bucks.