The Brooklyn Nets confirmed their place in the east semifinals by putting away the Boston Celtics with a 4-1 series victory. In their only defeat, Jayson Tatum had to summon a 50-point game just to eke out that victory. Unfortunately, injuries robbed him of his best teammates in the playoffs, and so Boston never really had a fair chance against Brooklyn.
Now, what is potentially the most potent offensive trio in NBA history, James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are ready to take on their next challengers.
It just so happens that their upcoming opponent is also a powerhouse. The Milwaukee Bucks, with their own deadly trio of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday should provide worthy contenders to the throne.
Let’s take a look at some of the key reasons why each team could give the other problems.
The Bucks were dominant in the first round and easily finished off the Heat while only facing adversity in Game 1. For the last three games of the series, the Heat didn’t even look like they belonged on the same basketball court as they got a series of whoopings and saw their season end on their home floor. Considering that the Heat soundly defeated the Bucks 4-1 last year (and yes Giannis was hobbled for a good part of that), it wasn’t how people envisioned the series going.
The Bucks are looking especially dangerous because of how well they have been playing to each others’ strengths.
Antetokounmpo is always a problem on the court, but he’s been especially focused with attacking the rim and causing havoc in the paint with both his scoring and rebounding. His averages of 23.5 PPG, 15 RPG and 7.8 APG are indicative of his impact on the team, but he is not looking like he’s being forced into too playing hero ball as he has in the past.
Khris Middleton has also been allowed to flourish and focus on his scoring and has rewarded the Bucks with 21.5 PPG, 6.8 RPG and 4.3 APG. He’s getting better looks and is shooting 49% from the floor and 40.7% from three.
The addition of Holiday was a vital one, as he is a superior fit compared to Eric Bledsoe in every single way. It’s unbelievable how big of an effect Jrue has had. First, his presence and playmaking ability allows Giannis to play off the ball and wreak havoc in new ways. Holiday is also an annoying defender that can get under his opponent’s skin. His averages of 15.3 PPG, 6.8 RPG and 9.8 APG shows that he is an all-around contributor. Holiday also has, by far, the best plus/minus rating for the Bucks at +24.5, ahead of Middleton’s +17.8 and Antetokounmpo’s +11.5.
Antetokounmpo admitted to Shaquille O’Neal after Game 4 that it was tough to initially change the way he played to accommodate Holiday, but he’s not going to complain about the results. He’s a supreme competitor and winning will matter more than stats or a specific way of playing to him. The early dividends have been good, and we’ll have to see how they can translate that style of play against Brooklyn.
The Bucks also have had solid contributions from their other rotation players. 33-year-old Brook Lopez is seeing something of a resurgence in the postseason and has upped his averages to 15.3 PPG and 6.8 RPG.
Bryn Forbes has also been a big contributor as his 15.0 PPG and 48.5% shooting from deep has made it even more dangerous for defenses to collapse into the paint to try to stop the Greek Freak. Forbes actually outscored Jimmy Butler in the first round series, which is not a fun stat for any Heat fan to look at. He’ll have to continue shooting well so that Milwaukee can give Brooklyn’s defense a reason to pause.
I think that the Bucks are the better defensive team, but that will be put to the test as they come up with Brooklyn’s offensive hydra. An additional layer of difficulty is added by the fact that starting guard Donte DiVincenzo is out for the rest of the playoffs after tearing a ligament in his left foot during Game 3.
The Nets are the living embodiment of the old adage “The best defense is a good offense.”
I can’t think of a team in recent memory that has the sheer firepower that the Nets have in Harden, Durant and Irving, three players who are all capable of scoring 40 or 50 on any given night. Each of them has the talent to do it while barely breaking a sweat. To put things in perspective, they averaged 85.2 PPG as a trio in five games against the Celtics.
Harden has been a big key to their success because of his ability to get everyone involved. His 27.8 PPG, 7.2 RPG and 10.6 APG contributions as the team’s main point guard gets everybody involved. It certainly helps that he hasn’t lost his scoring touch, or his ability to draw fouls while shooting threes. He was pretty merciless in Game 5 with a triple-double in the closing game.
Giving up the point guard role to Harden has allowed Irving to focus on scoring, which has been good for the Nets considering how talented he is at attacking the basket and leaving defenders in the dust with his ball-handling mastery. He’s also been aggressive on the boards which is shown by his 24.8 PPG and 6.4 RPG.
As a two-time NBA Finals MVP, it’s not surprising that Durant is the Nets’ leading scorer in the playoffs with 32.6 PPG and 7.4 RPG. He’s still probably the hardest player to guard because of his combination of height, skill, and range. He’s shooting 54.6% from the field and 50% from three in five games so far and he’s going to be a tough cover even for someone as physically gifted as Giannis Antetokounmpo.
While I’ve personally knocked Brooklyn for not sharing the ball enough in the past, especially when only two of three stars play in a game, I’ve got to concede that having all three of them on the court means that there just won’t be enough shots for the rest of the team. While there were times in the regular season where teams could hope to contain one of a pair of Irving, Harden or Durant, hoping to contain two out of three while healthy is an extremely difficult task.
It also helps the Nets’ case that two of their stars in Irving and Durant both have championship experience. The Bucks have the tools to give them trouble, but it’s nothing that they haven’t faced in the past.
What’s important to note, too, is that while the Bucks have a 2-1 regular season record against the Nets, they haven’t actually faced Harden, Durant and Irving at the same time yet.
I can’t wait for this series to start, and I’m willing to bet that a lot of other people feel the same way. Let’s see who draws first blood in Game 1.