Kevin Durant and the Nets Falter With a Single-Star Lineup

After Kyrie Irving left the first half with a right ankle sprain, KD was inefficient, hampered by the always-energetic P.J. Tucker and the lack of another playmaker in Brooklyn's lineup.
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Well, if a bizarre, low-scoring Game 3 served as the springboard to catapult the Bucks back into this Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Nets, one key sequence in Game 4 might have pushed Milwaukee from being the underdog to the favorite in Sunday afternoon’s matchup.

That moment happened with six minutes left in the first half, when star guard Kyrie Irving jumped for a layup attempt but then came down awkwardly and badly turned his right ankle on the foot of Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, who had inadvertently entered that space to compete for a potential rebound inside the paint. The Bucks led by four, 44–40, at the time of the injury and would eventually cruise to a 107–96 victory to even the series at two games apiece. And given Irving’s exit from the game—paired with questions about whether he and James Harden will be able to return to play—it’s now a situation where Milwaukee appears to have the upper hand, even with Game 5 being in Brooklyn.

Khris Middleton, Kevin Durant and Jrue Holiday

Among the undeniable takeaways from the Bucks’ victory in Game 4:

Welcome to the NBA

In the fourth quarter, as Brooklyn’s offense faltered, ESPN’s Mark Jackson gave a succinct summary of what he’d seen. “If you’re the Nets, welcome to the NBA, pretty much. This is what it’s like for teams playing with one star,” he said.

Jackson was referring to Kevin Durant, of course, the last healthy player from the Nets’ tremendous trio, and the one who almost never looked rushed or out of rhythm this season, even though this is his first campaign back from his Achilles tear back in the 2019 NBA Finals.

Game 4 was a completely different story, though. Durant began the game 3-for-6 with 9 points before Irving's leaving with the bad ankle tweak. But from that point forward, with the Bucks' feeling more comfortable loading up on Durant without another primary ballhandling threat, he shot just 6-for-19, inefficiently compiling 19 points. He had a nice scoring flurry in the latter part of the third quarter. But even that was extinguished quickly, as Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton hit an enormous three to close the third period, extending the Bucks’ lead to 12 heading into the fourth.

Durant remained in the game to start the fourth period, and didn’t take a seat in the second half until there were 4 minutes and 28 seconds left. Before that, he’d rested for just 90 seconds of game timeout of the 44 minutes that had been played to that point.

The Nets were plenty explosive when Durant was on the court without another star during the regular season, scoring 123.3 points per 100 possessions—better than when all three stars played together, in fact—in those instances, according to data from Stats Perform. They outscored opponents by 15.2 points per 100 plays. But the playoffs are obviously a different beast altogether.

The question of how Durant holds up and performs throughout the rest of the series will likely determine the outcome of a matchup Brooklyn was breezing through just a few days ago. In the past several years, we’ve rarely—if ever—seen Durant have to play meaningful basketball as his team’s lone star. (An enormous share of the criticism he received for signing with the Warriors stemmed from this idea.)

But now, it seems almost certain that we will.

Tucker comes to life on both ends

After scoring nine points through the first two games of the series—and none at all in Game 3—Bucks midseason pickup P.J. Tucker ignited for 13 points on just eight shots Sunday. Specifically, he was 3-for-6 from the corner, which he’s all but made his primary residence in recent years.

There may not be a more important shot than Tucker’s corner trigger for the Bucks in this series. Before Sunday’s breakout, the Nets had essentially ignored Tucker, opting to use their man to instead shade over and serve as a second stopper to wall off Antetokounmpo’s aggressive sprints and spins into the paint.

Tucker made them pay for using that logic a number of times. Once when a rim-running Giannis sent the Nets scrambling to stop him from getting a quick, easy transition basket, which left Tucker wide open. Once on an offensive rebound, where Pat Connaughton made a beautiful skip pass from one corner to the other, right over the heads of two players who were trying to neutralize Antetokounmpo under the hoop. And one other triple that came about on a Middleton-Antetokounmpo screen-and-roll, where Middleton punished Joe Harris for cheating in toward the paint in an effort to tag Antetokounmpo on the potential roll.

It also helped that Tucker was extremely physical on defense with Durant as the four-time scoring champion tried to keep the offense afloat largely by himself. On numerous occasions, he got into Durant’s body, and limited the space he got for jumpers and while coming around screens. (Middleton and Jrue Holiday were active in this regard, too, and were freed up to help without Irving on the court.)

Durant voiced complaints for fouls, and Nets coach Steve Nash aired a critique of his own after the game.

“I thought it was borderline nonbasketball-physical at times,” he said of Tucker’s defense on Durant.

Durant will likely need some Tucker-like help in Games 5 and 6

Much like how Antetokounmpo and the Bucks got a massive boost from Tucker, the Nets could sure use one from Harris, who finished with the league’s best three-point percentage for the second time in three seasons.

Harris, particularly lethal as a fourth or fifth option when the team is at full strength, was solid in Games 1 and 2 of the series, scoring 19 and 13 points, respectively, while hitting 50% from deep. But he had perhaps his worst game of the season when the series shifted to Milwaukee in Game 3, shooting 1-for-11 for just three points, then followed that up with a 3-for-8 performance with eight points in Game 4.

Durant will find himself a bit more free if Harris and his teammates can knock down shots early when they take their home floor for Game 5. The challenge, of course, is that there isn’t much high-level playmaking outside of the team’s Big Three. Backup point guard Mike James was signed from a Russian league only a couple of months ago. And for how rejuvenated Blake Griffin’s looked with Brooklyn, Nash said he subbed out Griffin—their best defensive answer for Giannis, due to Griffin’s bulk in the post—since the uptempo pace the Nets needed to play with from behind might be too fast for him.

So between the added weight on Durant’s shoulders due to Irving and Harden’s absences, the struggle to get Harris going and the inability to keep Griffin on the floor, the Nets have their work cut out for them. Which feels bizarre to say, given that just a few days ago, some of us wondered whether the Bucks were already done for. The NBA’s title galaxy might’ve shifted entirely with a pair of stars being out of place.

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