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2021 NBA Playoffs - Brooklyn Nets v Milwaukee Bucks

The good news: For two straight games, the Nets have held the NBA’s highest scoring team to 86 points, more than 20 points below their regular season average. The bad news: the Nets scored only 83 vs the Bucks on Thursday night.

The big issue, of course, is their offensive struggles, with James Harden and without Jeff Green, two key pieces. As Brian Lewis chronicles, the numbers Thursday were raw.

Kevin Durant was just 11-for-28 from the floor, his worst playoff shooting night since Game 1 of the 2018 NBA Finals. Joe Harris was just 1-for-11 overall, and 1-for-7 from behind the 3-point arc. Irving was 9-for-22, handed out just one assist, and was oddly invisible down the stretch.

Is it likely that the Nets will have another stinker on Sunday? No. But just as unlikely is that the Bucks who averaged 120 points a game this season will have another 86-point outing.

Lewis notes that historically, KD responds well after bad shooting nights in the post-season. It’s a specialty of his.

Durant — with a career average of 27.0 points per game — has averaged 32.8 points after playoff losses since 2016, and 37.2 after postseason defeats since the start of the 2019 postseason (discounting the 2019 game in which he ruptured his Achilles). Big-game bouncebacks are in his DNA.

The Nets superstar also has scored better away from home in the post-season. He’s averaged 29.6 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.7 assists in 70 games on the road in the playoffs in his career, per StatMuse.

However, and this is a big but, the Nets haven’t won without Harden in Milwaukee this season, going 2-0 in the regular season and 0-1 in the playoffs. Without him, the offense has devolved in a string of iso’s, not conducive to an effective offense. He, of course, is out again Sunday.

Nets are not that worried because they believe their defense can hold up and the offense will come around.

“We were getting what we wanted; we just weren’t making shots. I think we shot 20-something from 3, maybe 30-something from the field, so I just think we weren’t making shots the whole game,” said Bruce Brown, who came away with 16 points and 10 boards in Game 3.

“Yeah, we’re going to be good. We didn’t make shots. They made shots. They made one more shot than we did. So we’ll be ready for Sunday.”

Steve Nash said basically the same thing post-game on Thursday.

“We can learn from it. We can grow. We got good looks at times that just didn’t go in for us. It was an uncharacteristic night in that respect but also a night that is a new experience for us. On the road and against an elite team in a hostile environment. Very physical game and at times I thought we maybe needed to just slow down a little bit have a little bit more poise and get to our spots,” said the head coach, eight games into his post-season coaching career.

However, the Nets also understand that it’s not going to be some statistical regression to mean that will get their offense back up to speed. It’s going to be about concentration.

“We can’t expect to make shots next game just because we missed,” Durant said. “We have to go out there and take it one possession at a time, but prepare these next two days and practice and get our bodies right, get our minds right and come back.”

And what to expect from the Bucks. Amar’e Stoudemire, one of the Nets player development assistants, was in New York Friday and the Post’s Ryan Dunleavy caught up with him.

“For the Bucks right now, Game 4 is a must-win,” Stoudemire told Dunleavy. “Same as it was in Game 3. They came out with a lot of energy. They are going to want to do the same in Game 4. For us in Brooklyn, we’re like, ‘Let’s get these guys out of here, win Game 4 and go home to seal the deal.’ Both teams are coming with some straight force.”

Khris Middleton, the Bucks second option, finally got out of his funk Thursday, scoring 31 points. He thinks that energy is one element in the Bucks plan. The other is defense.

“We have to try to make it tough and contest every shot,” Middleton said, “and live with the results.”

The Nets will also have to deal with old friend Brook Lopez. Lopez used his size and timing to block six shots down low, including against Durant and Brown.

“It’s one of the things Brook has done consistently for us,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said of the rim protection. “I think he makes great reads, great decisions, uses his length. He’s great in there. Everybody’s trying to get there, and Brook was able to make some big blocks and big stops down the stretch that were really important. That’s what we need from him going forward.”

The last two games, of course, are notable for more than the Nets ability to hold the Bucks to 86 points. They provided a stark contrast. In Game 2, the Nets were up by 49 and won by 39, putting an offensive performance that was historic for the franchise. In Game 3, they went down by 21 and although they came close to a historic comeback, it turned out to be if not historic, then shocking. The 83 points was their lowest point total of the season.