After dispatching their first-round opponents with relative ease, the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks will face off in the second round in a clash of titans. Both of these teams have been highly scrutinized this season, albeit for different reasons. Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are looking to silence the doubters and prove that small-market teams are capable of winning championships, while the Nets are looking to prove that they are more than just a collection of big names. This series will be a battle of big threes, but which team has the right kind of star power to continue their march towards the finals?
The Milwaukee Bucks have traversed a long and 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 in the previous two seasons caused the media and fans alike to have high expectations for Milwaukee in the postseason. They, unfortunately, came up short both times, being eliminated in the second round both seasons; first by the Toronto Raptors who went on to win the 2019 NBA Finals, and again last season by the Miami Heat in just five games.
Last season, after they flamed out against Miami in spectacular fashion, many questions began to surround the Bucks’ organization regarding their coaching, roster construction, and the ability of Antetokounmpo to be the primary option on a championship team. Many pundits put the loss on head coach Mike Budenholzer and claimed that 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 that involved essentially walling off the paint with defenders and forcing Antetokounmpo to beat them with his jump shot, and Budenholzer failed to find a remedy to this strategy. However, it also exposed a major weakness in Antetokounmpo’s game, his inability to consistently hit outside shots.
The rest of the roster also failed to rise to the occasion, with starting point guard Eric Bledsoe, in particular, being criticized for his poor shooting performances. In short, the Bucks were coming off an embarrassing loss to a much lower-seeded team, and there was quite a bit of disagreement about how they should go about fixing things. Some were calling for the Bucks to fire Budenholzer, while others questioned whether Antetokounmpo would ask for a trade.
They spent the offseason (and a great deal of money) trying to quell these concerns. It started with acquiring point guard Jrue Holiday from the New Orleans Pelicans in a four-team trade. They had to give up Bledsoe, but most fans were not too upset after his poor postseason performances. Making the trade for Holiday must have given Antetokounmpo confidence that Milwaukee was willing to go all-in to keep him around because he signed a supermax extension shortly after the trade was finalized.
Fast forward to this season, and things contingently appear to have worked out for Milwaukee thus far. Holiday has been the perfect addition to the team, providing elite defense, outside shooting, passing and veteran leadership. They have experimented on offense more and used Antetokounmpo less as a ball-handler and more as an off-ball cutter and screener, something that would also not have been possible without Holiday. Perhaps most importantly though, Khris Middleton has come into his own as a closer and taken some of the late-game pressure off Antetokounmpo. He even hit a game-winner in the first 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, who they swept. Now, they must face the star-studded juggernaut that is the Brooklyn Nets.
Brooklyn on the other hand has nearly the opposite path to Milwaukee up to this point. While the Bucks’ big three is composed of all non-lottery picks, including Khris Middleton who spent time in the G-League, the Nets’ big three is made up of top three picks in Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and James Harden who all joined the team in free agency.
The Nets largely cruised through the regular season. With talent like they possessed, making the playoffs was a peripheral concern. They spent most of the season trying to get their star players healthy. The carousel of injuries that had their stars in and out of the lineup resulted in them only playing eight games together. However, as their series against the Boston Celtics demonstrated, the trio 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 end. The questions about this team are regarding their proficiency on the defensive end, as they were just 22nd in the NBA in defensive rating and points allowed per game. Since 2001, no team with a regular season defensive rating lower than 11 has won the NBA Finals, with the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers being the outlier at the beginning of this pattern. Perhaps the Nets will be the ones to buck the trend, but history is certainly not on their side. At the same time though, there has never been a collection of offensive talent on one team quite like this.
As previously mentioned, the Nets have also been dealing with health and availability concerns throughout the season. Durant and Harden both played less than 50 games on the year, and an injury could quickly derail their championship aspirations similar to Durant’s ankle injuries in the 2019 playoffs.
What to Watch
The Bucks’ Defensive Matchups
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 needed to contend with Brooklyn’s stars. Antetokounmpo in particular may be one of the better defensive options against Durant in the NBA. The question is, how will Brooklyn respond? Will they hunt for mismatches and try to get players like Brook Lopez switched onto Harden or Kyrie? How the Nets approach the Bucks defense will be a major key to the series.
The Giannis Problem
The Nets best option for defending Antetokounmpo is probably Kevin Durant, but they cannot risk tiring him out too much with this assignment to contribute on offense. Other than Durant, the Nets best option is likely center Deandre Jordan, who has played just 44 minutes since May 2. Will the Nets bring Jordan off the bench to try and slow him down? Will he even be able to in old age? If the Nets can limit him offensively, their chances of winning the series greatly improve.
The Nets’ Mindset
Brooklyn’s stars, while talented, have all been criticized at various points in their career for not having a killer mindset. ESPN’s Zach Lowe criticized them for loafing and looking uncommitted in his podcast earlier this week. If the Nets come out flat-footed, they are going to get eaten alive by a hungry Bucks team eager to prove themselves. Two of Brooklyn’s stars already have rings, will they be able to match Milwaukee’s intensity?
This is going to be a series for the ages, and while the Nets have the edge on paper, the fact that the Bucks just swept a team that beat them in five games the season before cannot be underscored. Plus, the Bucks matchup with the Nets about as well as any team reasonably could given the level of firepower they possess. Ultimately, the Bucks are going to fight harder for the win in a series where they have everything to prove.
Final Prediction: Bucks in 7
All stats courtesy of Pro Basketball Reference and ESPN
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