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Nets Notes: Brooklyn Has James Harden This Time For Milwaukee Matchup

Nets scheme on defending two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo

The first time the Brooklyn Nets played the Milwaukee Bucks this season, Blake Griffin was a Detroit Piston and Kyrie Irving was unavailable to play. The next two times, James Harden was out with a hamstring strain.

That’s three-fifths of the starting lineup from Brooklyn’s first-round series win over Boston, and presumably the lineup for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Bucks on Saturday.

The Nets won that first matchup 125-123 back on Jan. 18 — Harden’s second game with Brooklyn after the trade from Houston. The next two were similarly tight before the Bucks took both halves of a back-to-back home set in early May — 117-114 and 124-118.

Considering the holes in the Brooklyn lineup compared to who they’ll have available on Saturday, what’s a rehash of those games worth?

“I still think there is value in those games even if we never had a full complement,” said Nets head coach Steve Nash. “So, we’ll try to prepare the best we can and project the best we can on what it will look and feel like with more of our roster available. But at the same time, we have to be ready to adjust to it and make that kind of versatile – have that versatility going forward because it may not present itself exactly the way it did in the regular season. And each of those games, in a sense, will – I would say the two there were similar, but I’d say the first game against them, you can almost throw that one out because it was so long ago now.”

Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez said the Bucks were doing their due diligence in checking out film of the two Milwaukee wins in May while acknowledging the limitations of what can be taken away without Harden, describing Harden, Irving, and Kevin Durant as “three incredible all-world players.”

The sample size of those three playing together is almost as large in the playoffs already as it is for the entire regular season. With Harden returning to action in the final week of the regular season and the Nets entering the playoffs whole and healthy, they put up 123.4 points per game with an offensive rating of 128.0 points per 100 possessions against the Celtics.

Harden averaged 27.8 points on 55.6/47.5/90.9 shooting splits along with 10.6 assists and 7.2 rebounds per game. That’s a huge addition to the lineup that wasn’t there in Milwaukee.

“It’s a little bit different,” said Griffin. “I mean, the two games that I was here for, we didn't have James. I don't know what it was before that. But you guys see how big of a role he plays in our offense. Even if he's not scoring the basketball, the way he facilitates a game — not just passing the basketball, but the way he sort of sees the game and gets everybody into positions — is huge for us. So it'll be be a different look for sure from the two times that I've been here that we played them for sure. So yeah, I would say it'd be a little bit different look. But overall, our offensive identity doesn't really change a lot: It just helps you know, having one of the best playmakers and facilitators, you know, in the world.”

DEFENDING GIANNIS

In Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks are led by the two-time defending MVP winner. And while voters seem ready to hand the hardware to someone else this season, Antetokounmpo’s numbers are right in line with those that earned him the award the last two seasons. He was fifth in the NBA in scoring (28.1) and ninth in rebounding (11.0) while shooting 56.9 percent and also averaging 5.9 assists, 1.2 steals, and 1.2 blocks per game.

Against the Nets, Antetokounmpo averaged 39.7 points in three games, shooting below his season average from the field (48.9) but well above from 3-point range (38.5) on a jacked-up 8.7 attempts per game compared to the 3.6 he averaged for the season.

“With any great player, it's something you do by committee,” said Blake Griffin of the defensive challenge. “It's not going to be a single person just stopping him. There's a reason he’s back-to-back MVPs and has had the success he's had. So yeah, we have some things in place. But like I said, it's gonna be a team effort. And we'll be ready for it.”

Griffin will be part of that committee, along with second-year big Nicolas Claxton. Claxton averaged 13.1 minutes against the Celtics in his first career playoff series, but with the Bucks featuring Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez, and Bobby Portis, the smaller opposing lineups that the Nets saw and matched up against while facing the Celtics aren’t likely to be available.

Griffin brings experience and physicality to the matchup at 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds, while the 6-11, 215-pound Claxton has been more aggressive defending on the perimeter.

“I think each player is going to be slightly different in their individual approach, but I think the strategy we will probably start with is similar from a team defending standpoint,” said Steve Nash. “So, it’s also the type of thing that I think we have to work our way through as the series goes on and become — have a better feel for it. More and more of an understanding collectively and also be able to adapt and adjust within our schemes — not just to change our schemes. So, there’s a lot of layers to it. But I think there is some slight individual adjustments depending on the match ups — but the team concepts will be the same regardless.”

HELLO BROOK

The Eastern Conference semifinals give the Nets a matchup against the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, Milwaukee center Brook Lopez.

Lopez began to reinvent himself as a 3-point threat in his final season with the Nets and expanded on that when he got to Milwaukee, where he’s shot 34.3 percent on 5.1 attempts per game over the last three seasons. He also picked up his first All-Defensive honor (Second Team) for the 2019-20 season.

“I think he could be one of the wild cards,” said Steve Nash. “I think that all the complementary players on both sides there’s potential there for somebody to have a huge impact on the series, not necessarily unexpectedly, but a bigger impact than you thought. Brook’s one of those guys that can do different things on the floor to have an impact.”

Lopez and the Nets went through a lot together after they drafted him 10th overall out of Stanford in 2008. From the final seasons in New Jersey to the move to Brooklyn and then the start of the Sean Marks era, Lopez was a stand-up face of the franchise. Aside from his franchise-record 10,444 points as a Net, Lopez is second in Nets history in games played (562), first in blocks (972) and third in rebounds (4,005).

“I have great memories of my time with the Nets,” said Lopez. “I look back on them fondly a lot. Definitely wish we could have been more successful in the playoffs. I played with a lot of great, special players. Just going down the list, guys like VC, Kevin Garnett, Truth, DWill, Jo-Jo. I could just keep going down. There’s so many special people from a teammate standpoint, coaching standpoint, organizational standpoint. I have very special memories of my time there.”

It’s been a few years away now for Lopez, who was traded to the Lakers after the 2016-17 season and then moved to Milwaukee as a free agent the following summer. Joe Harris is the only Net active for this series who played with Lopez in Brooklyn.

“Brook is actually one of my favorite guys in the NBA,” said Harris. “In the short time we were together in Brooklyn, I got to know him pretty well. He’s one of those guys who is very charismatic. People gravitate toward him, everybody really likes him a lot. And then, I got a chance to play with him again in the World Cup a couple of years ago. So I spent the summer with him. He’s definitely one of my favorite people in the NBA.”

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