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Bucks vs. Nets: Irving Injury Casts a Dark Cloud Over Game 5

milwaukee bucks vs. brooklyn nets

After falling behind 2-0 and looking like they had collapsed like a dying star, the Milwaukee Bucks have scraped and clawed their way back into this series. With Sunday’s 107-96 win, Milwaukee has tied the series up 2-2. However, perhaps even more notable than the win itself was that Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving exited the game halfway through the second quarter with an apparent ankle injury. 

Irving will reportedly more than likely be absent for a crucial game five in Brooklyn, as will James Harden. Kevin Durant will be the only healthy member of their big three. 

While injuries will inevitably become part of the narrative if Milwaukee ultimately wins this series, to chalk up the Bucks’ comeback to getting lucky with the availability of their opponent’s stars would be lazy at best and disingenuous at worst. Milwaukee was able to win the last two games because of key adjustments (and maybe a bit of help from Durant). 

Playing Giannis Antetokounmpo at Center

While it would be pretty awesome if Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer had pulled this one straight from The Game Haus website, that probably was not the case. Nonetheless, it is good to see Budenholzer finally making more tactical, matchup-specific adjustments and game plans. Basketball-Reference estimates that Antetokounmpo played just 12% of his minutes in the regular season at center, which is an infuriating statistic given that this positional switch is one of the deadliest weapons in the NBA. Check out this excerpt from a CBS Sports article written last July:

“Such lineups have scored 116.5 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. That’s just a shade below the Dallas Mavericks, owners of the most efficient offense in NBA history at 116.7 points per 100 possessions, over the course of the full season. They’ve been even better defensively. The Bucks allow the fewest points per 100 possessions in the NBA, only 102.3 in total. With Antetokounmpo at center, that number tumbles to 94.8. The only constant has been Giannis. Though he has played 418 total possessions at center, no single lineup under that umbrella has played more than 10 total minutes. If Golden State had the Death Lineup, Milwaukee just has one killer player.”

It is hard to determine what took Budenholzer so long to decide to lean more on this lineup. He is notorious for his inability and unwillingness to make out-of-the-box adjustments during playoff series, but perhaps he decided to embrace innovation in the face of the realization that he is two losses away from unemployment. Regardless of the rationale, the change has worked wonders for the Bucks. You cannot argue with results, and the proof is in the pudding:

PJ Tucker’s Defensive Renaissance 

PJ Tucker contributing something to the game other than getting uncomfortably close to Kevin Durant and fouling the bejeezus out of him has been a massive boon for Milwaukee. After shooting 27.3 percent from the floor, 12.5 percent on 3-pointers and pretty much getting barbecued by Kevin Durant on every defensive possession in the first three games of the series, some fans and pundits were calling for Tucker to ride the end of the bench for the rest of the series. It was hard to argue with them, as Tucker had as many points through those three games (nine) as he did fouls (nine). 

That all changed on Sunday however, when Tucker put together one of the finest performances of his career. He scored 13 points on 5-8 shooting, including hitting three of his six 3-point attempts. More importantly, however, he hounded Durant on the defensive end with his trademark relentlessness and physical style. Durant scored 28 points but was just 9-25 from the field and 1-8 on 3-pointers. NBA Twitter had nothing but respect for Tucker after his performance, praising him for always being willing to take on tough defensive assignments and play the center position despite being just 6’5. 

Nets’ head coach Steve Nash saw Tucker’s big night in a different light though, calling his defense “borderline non-basketball physical at times.” In fairness, Tucker did get whistled for five fouls so it is not like he is getting off scot-free every possession, but it will be interesting to see if Nash’s gripe is on the mind of the officiating crew in game five. Tucker fouling out would be bad news for Milwaukee.

Kevin Durant is Mortal?

Over the last two games, Kevin Durant is shooting 37.7 percent from the floor and 25 percent on 3-pointers. There is some context to these numbers, and most of it probably regards PJ Tucker’s defense, but the bottom line is that Durant has not been the superhuman that he was in the first two games against Milwaukee in which he shot 55.8 percent from the floor and 50 percent on 3-pointers. NBA statistician Owen Phillips tweeted this table after game two of the series.

What anyone with a fairly rudimentary knowledge of statistics could have concluded from this bizarre hot-shooting stretch was that a regression to the mean was inevitable. As good as Durant is, no player is capable of sustaining such ridiculous percentages over the long term. The problem in Durant’s case is that while he is a fairly well-rounded player, all his other skills are secondary and meant to complement his scoring. When LeBron James’ jump shot is not falling, he has other elite skills that he can rely on to impact the game; he can get to the rim pretty much whenever he wants to and is arguably the best passer and playmaker in NBA history. When Durant’s jump shot is not falling, his passing is not nearly good enough to be the difference-maker in a game, and trying to score in the restricted area every play could potentially spell injury trouble for the leanly-built Durant. With Harden and Irving already out, the Nets simply cannot afford to lose their last healthy star to injury. Unless Durant gets back to being a flamethrower, the Nets are in a heap of trouble on the offensive end. 

Unfortunately for the Bucks, a lot of this will just depend on what version of Durant they get. While they can slow him down and bother him with physical defense and tough matchups against Antetokounmpo and Tucker, Durant is a 6’10 assassin who can shoot over defenders effortlessly. To a certain degree, they just have to hope that he misses. 

Game 5

With no Irving or Harden and a tied series, Durant will likely need to muster an absolutely monstrous performance in game five akin to what we have seen from LeBron James in similar situations over the years. He will also need his role players to hit open shots, a big performance from Joe Harris would be a huge help. The Bucks on the other hand will go into game five with all the momentum and a new positional strategy that has worked wonders so far. This series is shaping up to be one for the books, here’s to hoping it continues to be entertaining.

All stats courtesy of Pro Basketball-Reference and ESPN

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