The Brooklyn Nets will open a lengthy road trip that will take them to the edge of the end of the regular season with back-to-back games against the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday and Tuesday.
The Bucks, who had the league’s best record in each of the last two seasons while Giannis Antetokounmpo won back-to-back MVP awards, are currently running third in the Eastern Conference after adding guard Jrue Holiday in a major trade before the season and picking up forward P.J. Tucker after a midseason buyout.
The Nets won the first meeting between the two teams this season 125-123 on Jan. 18, right after Brooklyn had a significant shakeup of its own with the trade for James Harden. The win over the Bucks was Harden’s second game with the Nets.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to play a terrific team, a team that could very well be there at the end in the East and to measure ourselves and see how far we’ve come,” said Nets head coach Steve Nash. “We’re getting down to the nitty gritty here and so to have these types of games and challenges, and we’ve got a few of them left for sure, more than a few. It’s great for us. Great for our development. Great for our gauging of where we’re at and what we need to improve on. They’ll cause all sorts of problems and hopefully we can do the same and they’ll be great matchups.”
The five-game road trip will close a stretch in which the Nets are playing 12 of 16 games on the road before finishing the regular season with three home games. After the Bucks, they’ll go to Dallas to face Luka Doncic and the Mavericks, who have won 12 of 18 games over the last month while rising to sixth place in the Western Conference, and then fourth-place Denver, which has gone 16-3 since March 26 behind MVP favorite Nikola Jokic even while losing Jamal Murray to a knee injury.
“Just continuing to find consistency throughout, you know, kind of what we’re gearing up for toward the end of the season,” said Kyrie Irving. “Really just staying healthy and doing everything we can to come out on the winning side. Obviously, that won’t come easy being on the road. We’ve been tested a few times this year, but I think this road trip means a little bit more because it is toward the end of the season and we just want to play well and we want to do the right things. So, just excited to continue to build while we kiss our families goodbye for the next 11 days and we just have fun just being tighter as a group.”
In the balance is playoff seeding among the top three spots in the Eastern Conference. The Nets are 43-21 and in first place with eight games remaining. Second-place Philadelphia is a half-game behind Brooklyn at 42-21, while Milwaukee is 39-24.
“Wherever we land, I think we'll be proud,” said Irving. “Like I said, the circumstances of the season to still be the No. 1 seed or still be fluctuating between one and two, it's a blessing man. All the injuries that have been happening, just surprises that come up, we just want to stay resilient as a group and just get prepared for what's coming in the next few weeks. That's the exciting part playing in these different environments on the road, that's exciting as well, but just getting tighter as a group throughout some of these games where we'll learn a lot is what I'm looking forward to.”
Steve Nash said before Friday’s game he expected James Harden, Nic Claxton, and Bruce Brown to all accompany the Nets at the start of the road trip. Harden has missed the last 13 games with a hamstring strain, Claxton has been out for seven games due to health and safety protocols, and Brown has missed the last three games with knee soreness. Nash said “all indications” are that Brown would play on Sunday. Neither Brown nor Claxton were listed on the status report the Nets released on Saturday.
“Nic is back and working out and we probably need a ramp-up period for him,” said Nash before Friday’s game. “I’m guessing, but don’t expect to see Nic for at least a week. He’s healthy. He just needs to get his fitness. And then, James probably is still a ways away, but he’s working and getting better and improving and moving the right direction, and we’re all positive and optimistic about his long-term outlook. But I think we’ve still got plenty of time before we see him back on the floor.”
ABOUT THE BUCKS
Milwaukee has been trading places with the Nets as the league’s highest scoring team this season, and the Bucks are currently No. 1 while averaging 119.3 points per game and their offensive rating is ranked sixth (116.7). They’re fourth in field goal percentage (48.6) and second in effective field goal percentage (56.5). Milwaukee is fourth in 3-pointers made per game (14.5), seventh in 3-pointers attempted, and second in 3-point percentage (39.2). The Bucks have the NBA’s seventh-rated defense (110.6), limiting opponents to a 45.3 field goal percentage, fourth in the league, and cleaning up the boards: they’re first in both overall rebounds per game (48.1) and defensive rebounds per game (37.9). Milwaukee does allow 3-point opportunities: 29th in opponent 3-pointers made (14.5), 28th in opponent attempts (38.7) and 23rd in opponent 3-point percentage (37.5). Giannis Antetokounmpo is fifth in the NBA in scoring with 28.0 points per game while shooting 56.8 percent and leads the Bucks with 11.2 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game. Khris Middleton is averaging 20.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game while shooting 42.6 percent from 3-point range. Guard Jrue Holiday averages 17.3 points, 5.8 assists and 4.5 rebounds and shoots 50.5 percent overall.