The real fun starts Saturday. Brooklyn kicks off Game 1 of its second-round matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks in a series that many hope could be one for the ages.
Brooklyn’s offense, which led all teams in the first round of the playoffs, will assuredly be a test for Milwaukee’s defense, ranked number 1 through round-1 as well.
On the other side of the ball, limiting Milwaukee’s two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo will be a tall task and one that could swing the end result of this series. The Nets guarded Giannis with a variety of options in the regular season, but the general philosophy was to let the 26-year-old shoot jumpers to his heart’s content, provided there was at least some defensive pressure with a soft closeout.
“I think he shoots it at a record high within three feet, so obviously that’s not ideal for us. But at the same time, you don’t want to just give him threes where he’s dribbling in and able to tee up a shot,” said Blake Griffin after Thursday’s practice. “If he hits some tough threes, some contested threes, then you gotta shake his hand. We wanna make every shot he takes tougher than an uncontested wide-open three.”
Nicolas Claxton, one of Brooklyn’s many options to defend Milwaukee’s best player, argued that the challenge will be one that will fall on the Nets as a team... and not just one or two players. Help defense and having buy-in all the way down the roster could be the difference-maker in the eyes of Brooklyn’s promising second-year center.
“You wanna put a lot of different bodies on him, have a lot of help, and make sure he’s not getting out in transition, using his speed and athleticism,” said Nicolas Claxton. “It’ll be a team effort, all five guys in the court locked in.”
Moreover, taking away the east points, those thunderous dunks after a Gyrostep (the name for Giannis’ elongated eurostep move) that Antetokounmpo tends to lay down in transition will be paramount for Brooklyn’s defense. Giannis led the entire league in transition points with 8.2 per game and scoring via the fastbreak represents 26.4% of his offense, per Synergy Statistics.
“Transition is obviously a point of emphasis, he’s obviously very good just he is around the rim,” explained Griffin. “That’s sort of one of those things you have to do by committee and slow him down there.”
Coach Steve Nash sounded off on the general defensive gameplan, noting that the Nets likely won’t stray too far away from what they ran against the Bucks during the regular season. If the Nets get torched? Well, adjustments can be made from there. But despite the results — a 1-2 record against Milwaukee during the regular season — Nash displayed ample confidence in Brooklyn’s strategy.
“I think the strategy we’ll probably start with is probably similar from a team-defending standpoint,” said head coach Steve Nash about defending Giannis. “It’s also the type of thing we have to work our way through as the series goes on and have a better feel for it, have more and more of an understanding collectively, and also be able to adjust and adapt within our schemes, not just change our schemes. The team concepts will be the same regardless.”
Of course, the biggest adjustment of all has nothing to do with what plays the Nets are running on offense, who is defending who on defense, or anything of the sort. The Nets will also have Harden this time around. Harden missed two of the three games against the Bucks. Beyond the triple-double threat he poses, Harden should greatly stabilize Brooklyn with his leadership both on and off the floor.
“You guys see how big of a role he plays in our offense,” Blake said. “Even if he’s not scoring the ball, the way he facilitates the game, not just passing the basketball, but the way he sees the game and gets everyone in positions is huge for us. It’ll be a different look, for sure.”