We saw Brooklyn’s path to victory in the Eastern Conference semifinals on Tuesday night as Kevin Durant erupted and the Nets canned 16 threes in a 114-108 win. Milwaukee’s blueprint may be less aesthetically pleasing, but it was on full display on Thursday in a series-saving 104-89 home victory.
Milwaukee’s win on Thursday wasn’t exactly an offensive symphony. The Bucks hit just seven of 33 threes as a team, including a 1-for-10 mark from Jrue Holiday. The third quarter featured the worst of Milwaukee’s offense, when the game devolved into a stream of isolations and late-shot clock jumpers. Brooklyn was still within striking distance to close the third quarter, cutting the Bucks’ lead to five before a trio of clutch buckets from Khris Middleton to close the period. After the Bucks sprinted out to another major lead, one hot stretch from Durant threatened to turn things around and end the series.
The Milwaukee we’ve been waiting for arrived in the fourth quarter. The Bucks smothered Durant and attacked the paint with fervor, going on a 14–0 run to put the game out of reach. For all the criticism of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s shortcomings and the roster’s potential pitfalls, this is no playoff patsy. The Bucks posted the Eastern Conference’s best net rating in each of the last three years. They have three players with nine-figure contracts, adding a pair of quality veterans in Brook Lopez and P.J. Tucker. The momentum of this series continues to swing, with a Milwaukee team that appeared dead in the water now finding its groove. Will it be enough to take down Durant and Co. in Game 7? Thursday provided at least a modicum of confidence.
The Bucks at their best can be a menacing defensive unit, one filled with long arms and switchable wings. Antetokounmpo and Holiday are first-team All-Defense honorees. Middleton is a solid defender with a large frame. Tucker is arguably this defense's missing piece, bringing an edge and physicality to Milwaukee that wasn't present in previous seasons. The 6’5” pseudo-center continues to be a fascinating piece in this series.
Tucker scored just three points on 1-for-6 shooting on Thursday, yet he still posted a game-best plus-30 in 34 minutes. The figure is no coincidence. Tucker has spent much of the series in the jersey of Durant, playing so tough as to make Steve Nash call his defense “borderline non-basketball physical.” Tucker may be a player pulled straight out of the mid-90s, and you can question his tactics if you wish. His success is undeniable. Durant needed 30 shots to score 32 points on Thursday, earning few uncontested jumpers throughout the night. Just as Tucker helped halt Durant’s Warriors in the 2018 Western Conference finals, he stalled Brooklyn’s high-powered offense on Thursday.
Milwaukee’s offense flowed with a healthier pace for much of Thursday night outside of the third quarter. Antetokounmpo thrived on a steady diet of dives to the rim and transition attempts, pummeling the paint en route to 30 points and 17 rebounds. It should be noted Antetokounmpo didn’t take a single three on Thursday, ditching an ill-fated experiment over the last two seasons. Just five of his 20 shot attempts occurred outside the paint in Game 6. He didn’t handle a massive playmaking load in the half-court, eliminating Brooklyn’s ability to switch and sag at will. Point Giannis may be a perfectly fine route to 50 wins, though it has its limitations in the postseason. When another lead initiator emerges, Antetokounmpo’s best strengths are highlighted.
Both of the two-time MVP's leading co-stars delivered on Thursday night. Holiday still added five assists and four steals despite a difficult shooting night, often slithering to the rim when Antetokounmpo sealed the interior. As for Khris Middleton, Thursday’s win may have been his most impressive playoff performance to date. Middleton finished the night with 38 points (a career postseason high), 10 rebounds, five assists and five steals, feasting on opportunities against James Harden, Blake Griffin and Jeff Green. Middleton may be the most anonymous $150 million man in sports, though don’t let his unassuming nature distract from his impressive skill-set. He can be one of the league’s most complete co-stars, capable of shutting down wings and saving possessions late in the shot clock. Middleton’s role can often be a thankless one, but he was brilliant on Thursday nonetheless.
I’m not so sure this series would be heading seven games if health concerns were eliminated, though you could apply the same logic to plenty of series in these playoffs. But as things currently stand, the Nets aren’t necessarily some unstoppable juggernaut. Kyrie Irving is on the bench and James Harden is limited. Jeff Green can’t be counted on to replicate his impressive Game 5 performance, and Joe Harris continues to have a muted series. The depth of this team was always going to be an issue following the Harden trade. The Bucks are now capitalizing on Brooklyn’s shortcomings, needing anything but a heroic Durant performance to advance to the conference finals.
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