It seems like a page torn from a “Seinfeld” script, specifically the one from the car rental counter:
“You know how to get the Big Three, you just don’t know how to play the Big Three. And that’s really the most important part of the Big Three: the playing.”
What began with the Brooklyn Nets planning to flex their three superstars – Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving – against Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference semifinals as brazenly as they did one round earlier has been altered dramatically by injury.
Harden went out with a hamstring strain just 43 seconds into Game 1 and hasn’t played since. Then with 5:52 left in the second quarter of Sunday’s Game 4, Irving came down on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s foot, his right ankle turning sideways and taking the full force of his landing. The Nets point guard limped off and did not return.
Brooklyn’s prospects in the matinee left with him. Sure, Irving’s basket on the play ended what had been a 19-2 Milwaukee run and the Bucks led 44-40 at that point. But the Nets had led by as much as 11 while Irving was around. Then they got outscored 55-44 to the 4:28 mark of the fourth quarter, when coach Steve Nash shut it down and cleared his bench.
“We missed him, obviously,” Nash said before a fire alarm cleared the arena. “It was a big adjustment to play without him and James. We’ve had that type of year. So we’ve got to find a way to figure it out.”
Due to injuries, the Nets had played without one or two of their stars for much of the regular season – they only shared the court in eight games. But against Boston in the opening round, all were present and productive. In the five games, Durant, Harden and Irving combined to average 85.2 points, 21.0 rebounds and 16.4 assists.
Asked if there was a deflating, “here we go again” effect on his remaining players Sunday, Nash said: “I don’t know, maybe that was in play a little bit. We just didn’t execute very well. I think that was the gut punch. We had a hard time executing offensively, we had some defensive breakdowns.”
As much as the Bucks will say their primary opponent in this or any other series is themselves, imagine the scenario flipped 180 degrees. If Khris Middleton went down early in Game 1 and Jrue Holiday was done before halftime of Game 4, you know darn well that Brooklyn or any other team locked in an advance-or-go home situation would be feeling better, not worse.
“You know what’s in front of you,” said Bucks reserve Pat Connaughton, who had eight points, four steals, a gash over his left eye from the extremely physical play of both teams and a plus-23. “You game plan for guys like Kyrie and James. What it comes down to is, our mentality has to always be us. We are playing the Brooklyn Nets but when we play our brand of basketball , we can beat anybody.”
Good, because without Irving and Harden, the Nets kind of were just anybody. Aside from Irving’s ability to drive the offense and salvage possessions with his shot creation and shot making, his departure meant Brooklyn was without its two best ball handlers for the game’s final two-and-a-half quarters.
The Nets wound up turning over the ball 17 times to spark 25 of Milwaukee’s points. In the first three games, Brooklyn never had more than nine turnovers.
“Understanding whether Kyrie’s in or not, whether James is in or not,” Connaughton said, “we have to make sure we’re focused on trying to stop the next-man-up mentality.”
There really was no next man this time. Forward Jeff Green returned from a plantar fascia injury that had sidelined him since Game 2 against the Celtics, but neither he, Joe Harris, Blake Griffin or anyone else picked up much slack. Griffin only played five minutes after halftime, sitting out the fourth quarter when Nash tried to play faster.
That left Durant to do the heavy lifting, going 9 of 25 (1 of 8 on 3s) for his 28 points. But four Milwaukee players – from Antetokounmpo’s 34 to Middleton (19), Holiday (14) and P.J. Tucker (13) – scored more than the next Net, which was Irving’s 11. Durant shot 20 of 53 in the two games in Milwaukee.
Nash called Tucker’s defense on Durant “borderline non-basketball physical at times.” And had their matchup been wide receiver/defensive back, there would have been a blizzard of yellow flags. But the officiating crew let plenty of incidental contact go and while the Bucks put a lot of crooked numbers in their fouls column, none of them disqualified himself. Antetokounmpo didn’t even draw a whistle when his foot got under Irving.
The question now is whether Irving’s injury, such a pivot point in Game 4, will be one for the series. Milwaukee believes it has found itself, though foul trouble for any of its starters could thwart that outlook. Brooklyn has to find help for Durant, both in getting Tucker out of the thin man’s personal space and sharing the workload.
It’s possible Irving or Harden or both will be back before the series ends, possibly as soon as Tuesday’s Game 5. X-rays on Irving’s ankle were negative, though he left Fiserv Forum on crutches and in a protective boot.
“I have no idea what’s going to happen with Ky,” Nash said. “We’ll cross our fingers and hope it’s better.”
Hope is not much of a strategy, though, in a best-of-three now with games coming fast.
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