Milwaukee Bucks vs. Brooklyn Nets
After taking out their opponents in the first round with relative ease, the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks will face off in the second round in a clash of titans. These two teams have been under heavy scrutiny this season, albeit for different reasons. Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks seek to silence skeptics and prove that small market teams are capable of winning championships, while the Nets seek to prove that they are more than just a collection of big names. This series will be a battle of three bigs, but which team has the right kind of star power to continue their march to the final?
The Milwaukee Bucks have come a long, winding road to find themselves where they are today. Being the number one seed in the Eastern Conference and Giannis Antetokounmpo winning back-to-back MVPs over the previous two seasons has led the media and fans to have high expectations for Milwaukee in the playoffs. They unfortunately failed both times, being eliminated in the second round both seasons; first by the Toronto Raptors who won the 2019 NBA Finals, and again last season by the Miami Heat in just five games.
Last season, after soaring against Miami in spectacular fashion, many questions began to surround the Bucks’ organization regarding their training, roster building, and Antetokounmpo’s ability to be the primary option on a championship squad. . Many pundits blamed head coach Mike Budenholzer for the loss and claimed his inability to make counter-adjustments was the reason Miami was able to beat them so quickly. Miami had a great strategy to contain Giannis which was basically walling up the paint with the defenders and forcing Antetokounmpo to beat them with his jump shot, and Budenholzer failed to find a cure for this strategy. However, it also revealed a major weakness in Antetokounmpo’s game, his inability to consistently hit outside shots.
The rest of the roster also fell short, with playmaker Eric Bledsoe in particular being criticized for his poor shooting performance. In short, the Bucks had just suffered an embarrassing loss to a much lower ranked team, and there was quite a bit of disagreement over how they should go about fixing things. Some were calling on the Bucks to fire Budenholzer, while others wondered if Antetokounmpo would ask for a trade.
They’ve spent the offseason (and a lot of money) trying to allay those concerns. It all started with the acquisition of point guard Jrue Holiday from the New Orleans Pelicans in a four-team trade. They had to give up on Bledsoe, but most fans weren’t too upset after his poor playoff performance. Making the trade for Holiday must have given Antetokounmpo assurance that Milwaukee was ready to move all-in to keep him as he signed a supermax extension shortly after the trade was finalized.
Fast forward to this season, and things seem to have worked out for Milwaukee so far. Holiday was the perfect addition to the squad, offering elite defense, outside shots, assists and veteran leadership. They experimented more with offense and used Antetokounmpo less as a ball handler and more as a ball cutter and sieve, which would not have been possible without Holiday. Perhaps more importantly, Khris Middleton established himself as a closer and eased the late-game pressure on Antetokounmpo. He even hit a winner in the opening game of the first round. The first big test of their growth as a team was a rematch of last year’s playoffs when they faced the Miami Heat in the first round, which they swept aside. Now they have to face off against the starry juggernaut that is the Brooklyn Nets.
Brooklyn, on the other hand, has almost the opposite path to Milwaukee so far. While the Bucks Big Three are made up of all non-lottery picks, including Khris Middleton who has spent time in the G-League, the Nets’ Big Three are made up of the top three picks of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and James. Harden who all joined the team in free agency.
The Nets have sailed extensively during the regular season. With talent like they had, making the playoffs was a peripheral concern. They have spent most of the season trying to get their star players back to good health. The carousel of injuries that brought their stars in and out of the roster has only allowed them to play eight games together. However, as their streak against the Boston Celtics demonstrated, the line is a force to be reckoned with, regardless of their level of experience together. Brooklyn’s questions they must answer as a team are certainly not on the offensive side. Questions about this team relate to their defensive skills, as they were only 22nd in the NBA in terms of defensive standings and points allowed per game. Since 2001, no team with a regular-season defensive rating below 11 has won the NBA Finals, with the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers being the outlier at the start of this pattern. Maybe the Nets will be the ones to turn the tide, but history is certainly not on their side. At the same time, there has never been a collection of attacking talent in a team like this.
As previously mentioned, the Nets have also faced health and uptime issues throughout the season. Durant and Harden have both played less than 50 games this year, and an injury could quickly derail their championship aspirations, much like Durant’s ankle injuries in the 2019 playoffs.
The Bucks’ defensive clashes
The Bucks are better equipped to defend the Nets than maybe any team in the league. Middleton, Antetokounmpo, and Holiday are all All-Defense caliber players with the size to take on the Brooklyn stars. Antetokounmpo in particular could be one of the best defensive options against Durant in the NBA. The question is, how will Brooklyn react? Are they going to look for the lags and try to tip players like Brook Lopez over to Harden or Kyrie? How the Nets approach the Bucks defense will be a major key to the series.
The Nets’ best option to defend Antetokounmpo is probably Kevin Durant, but they can’t risk tiring him too much with this mission to help on offense. Other than Durant, the Nets’ best option is probably center Deandre Jordan, who has only played 44 minutes since May 2. Will the Nets take Jordan off the bench to try and slow him down? Will he even be able to do so in old age? If the Nets can limit it offensively, their chances of winning the series improve greatly.
The state of mind of the Nets
The Brooklyn stars, while talented, have all been criticized at various points in their careers for not having a killer mindset. ESPN’s Zach Lowe criticized them for their loitering and lack of engagement on his podcast earlier this week. If the Nets come out flat-footed, they’re going to get eaten alive by a hungry Bucks team eager to prove themselves. Two of the Brooklyn stars already have rings, will they be able to match the intensity of Milwaukee?
It’s going to be a series for the ages, and while the Nets have the edge on paper, the fact that the Bucks have just swept away a team that beat them in five games the previous season cannot be emphasized. Plus, the Bucks’ game with the Nets about as good as any team could reasonably be given the level of firepower they possess. Ultimately, the Bucks will fight harder for the win in a series where they have everything to prove.
Final prediction: dollars in 7
All stats courtesy of Pro Basketball Reference and ESPN
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