The buzz around the Eastern Conference semi-finals between the Nets and the Bucks is like a Finals preview. The two teams along with the 76ers ran the East this season and with the Western Conference not looking as foreboding, the two powerhouses who square off tonight are seen by many as the eventual champion ... and a major disappointment.
The Nets and Bucks match up quite well and both squads have their own version of the “Big Three.” But just as important are those who will need to step up beyond what’s expected. Does Landry Shamet have a game where he’s 5-of-6 from deep? Does Nic Claxton go for ive blocks?
The Brooklyn ‘Big Three’ — Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden — pop out more on in the record books, despite their limited time together while Milwaukee’s ‘Big Three’ — Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Jrue Holiday — are well rounded on both ends of the ball and their team’s potential is highlighted by their defensive play.
Outside of their respective ‘Big Three’s,’ Brooklyn and Milwaukee feature a good supporting cast of players that have stepped up in big moments throughout the regular season and in the first round of the postseason.
“We obviously have three outstanding offensive players,” Steve Nash said. “They have three outstanding players as well. They have a great supporting cast. They have the continuity and corporate knowledge in common experiences. We have a great supporting cast as well and it’s fascinating.
“It’ll be interesting to see how the matchups shake out and how teams will be able to cope with one another and to see the story of the series,” “I’m excited to see where this goes. Where our team is able to take our growth and development and how we’re able to adapt to the demands of the Bucks in this series.”
It certainly should be a series for the ages and a series that has a good chance of stretching to seven games. That said, here’s a look at the key matchups ahead of Game 1.
James Harden - Pat Connaughton
Out of all the matchups in the starting unit, the point guard matchup of James Harden and Pat Connaughton is the least worrisome for Brooklyn. While Connaughton is replacing Donte DiVincenzo — who is out the remainder of the postseason (a big hit for Milwaukee) — he’s stepped up in big moments for the Bucks in the postseason and serves as a solid veteran with key communication skills.
Although serving as a veteran voice and rebounding threat, the Bucks guard — and one time Nets draft pick — averaged only 6.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.2 assists during the regular season while Harden’s offensive play stands out in any match-up. The Nets guard put up MVP caliber numbers in the regular season — 24.6 points, 10.8 assists and 7.9 rebounds — and had an eye-popping string of defensive performances against the Celtics in the first round.
Harden — who did not play against Milwaukee in the May mini-series — may be the difference-maker in the series.
Kyrie Irving - Jrue Holiday
This one will be quite the duel at the 2. Jrue Holiday is known for his defensive play, backing it up with two appearances on the NBA All-Defensive Team. During their two regular-season meetings, he made things difficult for Irving, a rare occurrence in this, Irving’s best season.
“We all obviously respect how good of a defender Jrue is. He has the strength, size, speed, and agility so he’s incredibly versatile and a physical defender. We’ve seen it for years how good he is defensively. Definitely a huge part of his skillset and been a big addition to the Bucks,” Nash said after Friday’s practice.
In the two-game mini-series back in early May, Irving had very different outings. In the first he scored 38 points on 14-of-25 shooting, then 20 on 8-of-21 shooting. Again, both were losses. Irving and Holiday are known quantities to each other. Same with Harden.
“We’ve been competing since high school. He can move his feet very, very good then he’s strong. That right there in itself as a guard is difficult. He doesn’t get a lot of credit on defensive teams which I don’t know why, but he’s elite,” said Harden on Holiday. “We got to make sure we keep moving him around and make the job easier for ourselves.”
Joe Harris - Khris Middleton
If you like shooting, this is the matchup for you and a matchup that can serve as the x-factor in the second-round series.
Joe Harris is an important part of the Nets offense when he gets going and has become one of the league’s best 3-point shooting threats — ever. He’s currently fourth all-time in 3-point shooting percentage and has notched 46 percent of his 1,200+ three’s over the last three seasons. Mix that in with his ability to put the ball on the floor and his cutting. Meanwhile, Khris Middleton — who had a great first-round series against the Heat — is Milwaukee’s second star and averaged 20.4 points, 6.0 rebounds and 5.4 assists, shooting 41.4 percent from three in the regular season.
Kevin Durant - Giannis Antetokounmpo
There aren’t any debates on the matchup of the series and it comes at the four with two of the best scorers in the game.
In their three regular-season meetings, Kevin Durant led the Nets in scoring with 34.7 points while shooting 49 percent from the field. Meanwhile, Giannis Antetokounmpo had the edge with 39.7 points to go with 10.7 rebounds. While Brooklyn’s plan on the tough Antetokounmpo amounts to guarding him by committee, Durant says he’s ready to play hard defense and follow the fundamentals.
“Just playing hard. Guarding your yard and guarding who’s in front of you and keeping the ball between you and the rim. It’s easier said than done but that’s the foundation of it. He’s going to play hard and we got to match it,” Durant said after Friday’s practice.
Blake Griffin - Brook Lopez
It has been a while since Brook Lopez was traded out of Brooklyn, but his fingerprints are all over on the Nets franchise (even if the organization game his No. 11 to Kyrie Irving). He’s the all-time leading scorer in franchise history, the all-time leader in blocks, and is third all-time in rebounding. Aside from his presence down low and boasting a height advantage, Lopez has transformed his game starting with his last season in Brooklyn, unlocking key three-point shooting (33.8 percent) ability. He serves as the Bucks’ fourth option behind their ‘Big Three.’
Meanwhile, Blake Griffin serves as the Nets’ most physical defender and their best option against tall big’s and has been a main tone-setter on the defensive end since his arrival. Although Griffin struggled on defense through switching in the first-round series, he can serve value on the offensive end, averaging 10.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 2.4 assists during the regular season with Brooklyn (26 games).
Both teams have great talent on their benches with a mix of young talent and veteran experience. Brooklyn’s bench will be missing Jeff Green — plantar fascia strain in his left foot — for Game 1 while (as mentioned) Donte DiVincenzo will be out for the remainder of the postseason for Milwaukee.
Brooklyn’s bench — outside of Green — is highlighted by Shamet, Brown and Nicolas Claxton. Tyler Johnson served as the sixth man for the final games in the first-round series and Brown hinted that Johnson can be an x-factor in this series.
“He’s going to be big for us this series. I told him he’s going to have a big series like two days ago,” Brown said during team shootaround on Saturday. “Look out for him, for sure.”
Brown also endorsed a return-to-play for DeAndre Jordan, who hasn’t stepped on the hardwood since May 8, the longest stretch of DNP-CD’s in his career.
“He’s been staying ready. He’s been working and staying in condition. After every game, he goes on the treadmill and does his running and he plays in the stay-ready group and he dominates,” Brown said after Saturday’s shootaround. “He’s going to come out here and play the way we know he can play. We’re confident in him.”
Nash was again non-committal on DJ but offered a spark of hope that he could finally see some minutes.
“There’s gonna be multiple people who’ll get a chance [to guard Giannis]. DJ is definitely in play, Nic [Claxton]’s in play, and [Blake Griffin] as well, so it’s gonna be by committee,” Nash said. “He’s a terrific player as we all know, and is a really difficult matchup for every team. And he’ll be difficult for us, but we’ve got to take the challenge.”
Milwaukee’s bench consists of Sixth Man of the Year contender Bobby Portis, PJ Tucker, Bryn Forbes, and Jeff Teague. Forbes, who averaged 15.0 points in the first-round series against Miami and shot 39.9 percent from deep, needs to step up for the injured DiVincenzo.
“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,” Harden said Wednesday.
The second-round series against Milwaukee will be Steve Nash’s biggest test of his rookie campaign. The NBA Hall of Famer is still learning the ropes of being an NBA head coach but presents a brilliant basketball IQ and has allowed his players to voice their opinions throughout the season. Even in the short first round against the Celtics — it’s a quality that stood out to Durant after the Game 5 victory.
“I knew he would pay attention to detail, coach us up hard and tell us what we need to do. Regardless of who it is, he’d let us know what we can do better and he’s been an open book. If we want to change a play or action, coach is always open for it,” Durant said.
Meanwhile, Mike Budenholzer is one of the most brilliant minds in the NBA with lengthy experience as an assistant and a head coach. Many in the NBA —and in the Nets organization — think Budenholzer is the best x’s and o’s coach in the league. Since his arrival to Milwaukee, Budenholzer has turned the Bucks into a contender but has yet to make it past the Eastern Conference competition in the postseason.
Of course, all of this goes out the window at 7:30 p.m. tonight at Barclays Center. It’s about surviving the first punch, the first success against the plan.