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With dominance over Bucks, are Nets now title favorites?

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Milwaukee Bucks v Brooklyn Nets - Game Two Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

Many pundits thought the Nets-Bucks series would be THE series, a mini-Finals between the two best teams remaining in the playoffs. The West, they said, wasn’t going to produce a challenger the equal of Brooklyn or Milwaukee.

Of course, the Nets have dominated in Games 1 and 2, building leads of 17 and 49 (!) at Barclays Center ... even without James Harden who’s expected to back soon ... or soon enough.

Now, the Nets who’ve been betting favorites for most of the season are the team to beat according to almost everyone who follows basketball. The band wagon is getting full.

As Ian O’Connor of the Post writes Wednesday...

The Bucks found out the hard way what the rest of the NBA has discovered: It’s getting awfully difficult to picture anyone other than the Nets raising the Larry O’Brien Trophy next month. Milwaukee was supposed to be on its own championship-or-else mission this year after recent playoff failures, including last year’s five-game loss to the Heat. And yet Brooklyn has imposed its will forcefully enough to make the Bucks appear to be counterfeit goods, again, while James Harden sits and watches and saves his injured right hamstring for more worthy foes.

There’s certainly a lot of evidence behind that analysis and others. The Nets offense did as expected, but it’s been the defense that’s surprised. Going into the playoffs, the Bucks had both the highest scoring offense in the NBA and the reigning MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo. But the Nets have shut down the Bucks and their superstar.

In the first two games, the Bucks are scoring 97 points per 100 possessions. That’s puny. After averaging 39.6 points against the Nets in three regular season games, Antetokounmpo’s down to a more manageable 26.0 points in two playoff games. Antetokounmpo’s running mate, Khris Middleton, has fared even worse. He’s been held to just 30.2 percent shooting, including 23.1 percent from deep.

Moreover, there is a sense of futility and resignation in Milwaukee, a psychic deficit that can’t be measured by numbers. Brew Hoop, our sister site on SB Nation, wrote Tuesday, “It may also be the case that Giannis Antetokounmpo is incapable of leading the Bucks to the NBA Finals.” Yikes! Indeed, the two-time MVP has suffered in comparison to Kevin Durant whose performance has changed the narrative on his recovery from his 2019 Achilles injury.

As Steve Popper of Newsday notes...

It isn’t just that Durant is playing at an All-Star level again after the devastating injury that preempted his departure from the Warriors and forced him to sit out the entire 2019-20 season. But he is playing as if it is an All-Star Game — unpacking his arsenal of offensive weapons like it’s a celebrity showcase rather than an Eastern Conference semifinal.

The numbers, despite a smaller sample size due to injuries, show the question of whether he’s better make than he was pre-injury is totally relevant. This season has been his most efficient. He tied his best regular season shooting percentage (53.7 percentage), set a career highs in both 3-point percentage (45.0 percent) and effective shooting percentage (60.8 percent). And in the post-season, it’s the same story as Brian Lewis writes.

KD’s 10th post-season is so far his most efficient, posting career-highs in Net Rating, Offensive Rating, 3-point percentage, free-throw shooting, blocks and Player Efficiency Rating.

And superstars win championships. Yes, it’s early in the process. Expect the Bucks and Antetokounmpo to show some pride back home in Milwaukee and the Sixers are still the No. 1 seed, despite Joel Embiid’s sore knee and the failings Atlanta has exposed.

But as O’Connor argues, the Nets have to be considered the favorite at least for now. There’s the “Big Three” and a complement of supporting players led by the NBA’s best deep threat.

What does it all mean? The Nets have the most dynamic cast of offensive players, an improving defense, and a chance to summon Harden from the bullpen in the near future. They look like a safe bet to win the whole thing, and it’s been a long time since anyone said that about a basketball team from any part of the big city.

We’re not there yet, but it’s more than just a good start.