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Nets foresee tough test in Milwaukee ... and it’s not just Giannis

Brooklyn Nets v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

It didn’t take long for the Nets to turn their focus on the Bucks after making quick work of the Celtics.

“I’m thinking about them right now,” said James Harden post-game. “Just the matchups and things they do on both ends of the ball. We know how good they are on both sides and their individual talents. Tomorrow, we got an off-day and Thursday, we’ll watch film and prepare for them.”

The Nets closed out their first-round series against the Celtics and after the Game 5 victory, Brooklyn — who play at home for Game 1 against Milwaukee on Saturday — have been doing their due diligence on the Bucks, who swept the Heat two days ago.

“We just want to focus on the next game and our staff has already started scouting. We’ll have a game plan prepared and have these guys ready to go for Saturday,” Steve Nash said.

“We got a lot of stuff prepared already so we’ll start reviewing it, sorting it, and getting into a place where we can share with the players and get ourselves in a position to compete on Saturday,” Nash added.

Despite looking ahead to the highly-anticipated Eastern Conference semi-final matchup that can be a Finals teaser in itself, the Nets don’t want to take any credit away from their five-game series against the Celtics and celebrate “small wins.”

“We do understand it’s a long journey so we want to celebrate our small wins,” Kyrie Irving said. It’s easy to consider the Bucks. Obviously, they’re right in front of us in a few days and I’m right in the same boat as him [Harden]. Excited to think about the task at hand and how great that team is and what it’s going to take to be successful against them on both ends of the floor. We’ll deal with that when that time comes but as of right now, we celebrate the small wins. Thankful we got out of here healthy.”

In its “gentleman’s sweep,” Brooklyn saw the “Big Three” gel after playing only 202 minutes in regular season. Then, there were the strides in defense seen all over the first-round series. Kevin Durant wants his teammates to build on that increased defensive prowess and knows how important a role the defense will play in the second-round series.

“I think defensively we forced Boston out of a lot of their actions. We made them shoot tough shots over us and we made them play one-on-one. For the most part, guys were locked in and tried to stop one another. We had great shootarounds where we talked about defensive principles and that transferred over to the game,” KD said. “We are going to need that going into the next series and it’s all about progressing every day for us.”

Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets - Game Five Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

The two teams know each other very well and have had their eyes on each other for a while. The Nets took their first meeting at Barclays Center by a slim 125-123 margin while the Bucks swept the two-game mini-series on May 2 and May 4 in Milwaukee. Harden — who sat both games against the Bucks — was watching from the bench. He foresees a tough series ahead, beginning Saturday.

“You can definitely watch film and we’re going to watch film on them from the whole season I’m sure. Their last series and you know who these guys are,” Durant said. “Their strengths and weaknesses as individual players. As a collective, you got to watch film and be at our best. We can take from what they did the whole season, especially in the second half since they got PJ [Tucker], Bryn Forbes got more minutes, and once they start shortening up their rotation, you definitely take a peek at some of those games.”

The Bucks improved their defense with the acquisition of Jrue Holiday before the season and Tucker — two valuable pieces in their first-round domination of the Heat. Although watching film from their May “mini-series” is high on the agenda, Brooklyn plans to dive a lot deeper into the film, including the Heat sweep. Of course, one name on the Milwaukee roster tops the list.

“Obviously Giannis. The attention that he draws and then Middleton who gets going for them and then Jrue Holiday has been playing very, very well as of late as well,” said Harden “We know their three main players but we can’t let their role players impact games as well, Bryn Forbes has been shooting the ball, lights out. Their entire team. I can’t go into detail but I can give you overall from the outside looking in.

“I can remember sitting out those two games we had in Milwaukee and we fought and we had them down. It was a close game possession by possession like a playoff atmosphere. We can expect that same type of intensity or even another level.”

Brooklyn Nets v Milwaukee Bucks

Defending Antetokounmpo will be the big test. Durant — who guarded his near minor image frequently during the regular-season matchups — spoke highly of the former MVP and already acknowledge Brooklyn will have their work cut out for them in this series. He averaged a whopping 39.6 points in the three regular-season meetings against the Nets.

“He’s long, athletic, and plays hard. He cares about his teammates. He cares about winning. I mean, you put that combination together and you make a tough player,” said Durant of Antetokounmpo. “His game is expanding. He’s hitting a turnaround J now. He’s shooting threes, so we got our work cut out for us. He’s a two-time MVP and a two-time Defensive Player of the Year for a reason, so we’re looking forward to the challenge.”

It’s not just the two-time MVP either, KD noted.

“They’re a great team and they are tough to deal with. We respect everyone on their team. We know exactly what they bring to the table, but we are just going to go out there and have fun playing the game of basketball,” Durant said. “We are going to challenge each other. You know they are going to challenge us and vise versa. May the best team win.”

Brooklyn Nets v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Brooklyn will have to be focused on the small details — a point of emphasis in the first-round series — and can’t afford many mistakes. To the Nets head coach, Brooklyn and its players will need to display a different level of mental toughness for their next big test ahead.

“If I had to say one thing, I always like to lean on mental toughness. Being able to have the resolve to continue to work, to fight to persevere no matter if the game is going well or not. Just sticking with it, never giving an inch and giving yourself a chance on the mental side to compete fully,” Nash said.

Harden is on the same page as his coach, foreseeing that the series will not just come down to X’s and O’s against a Milwaukee team that has built their team around defensive versatility and is a team with years of common experience under their belt that includes postseason runs.

“I guess we’ll see, but he’s right. It’s not going to come down to Xs and Os, plays, and different schemes. At the end of the day, after Game 1 and Game 2, we’re going to know each others plays. It’s about detail and the small things — the box outs, who can dive on the basketball on the floor, whose going to make winning basketball plays,” Harden said. “Whoever does is going to have a chance at winning the game at the end of the game.”

On paper, the two teams match up very well with on both ends of the court, highlighted by their defensive versatility. Although Brooklyn will certainly need to be versatile on both ends — especially defensively — considering the uncertainty on the status of Jeff Green. Green was in street clothes and without a walking boot or crutches in the Game 5 victory Tuesday night.

“No update on Jeff. I believe he’s progressing well, but it’s not one of those things where we have an update nor is it a completely linear injury. Things are positive and moving in a positive direction,” said Nash on Green

While Brooklyn can’t control the availability of Green, there’s a mindset Harden wants all of his teammates to inhabit in preparation for the Eastern Conference powerhouse.

“I think every single day if we had a mindset to continue to get better both offensively and defensively, we’re going to be a special team, so just lock in on the details,” Harden said.

The Nets will host the Bucks for Game 1 on Saturday, June 5. The game is scheduled to tip at 7:30 PM ET.