2021 Playoffs: East Semifinal | Nets (2) vs. Bucks (3)

Bucks almost let crucial win slip away, before grasping control in final moments

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton carrying the scoring load until Jrue Holiday comes through with the winner in Game 3.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton finally found reason to celebrate by the end of the Thursday’s Game 3.

Things got bad for the Milwaukee Bucks — miserably bad, potentially hauntingly bad — before they rather remarkably got better against Brooklyn on Thursday.

With 1:23 left in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semifinals series, Kevin Durant’s moving 3-pointer, right-to-left, scraping P.J. Tucker off a screen by Bruce Brown, ripped through the net. Brooklyn, having trailed by as many as 21 points early in the game, found itself in front at 83-80, the Nets’ biggest lead of the night.

Three points might not sound like much, but on this night, in the moment, it could have seemed double-digits formidable to the Bucks. Points were hard to come by much of the game, the result of clanky shooting and dialed-up defense, and had dwindled to a precious few: From the 6:09 mark when Durant tied it at 76-76 until the aforementioned 3, the Nets and Bucks combined to score 11 points in 4 minutes 46 seconds of game time.

That’s an over/under pace of 110.7 points. For two teams.

Now factor in Brooklyn’s rising confidence from clawing back from that early hole and from having two of the NBA’s best-ever closers, Durant and Kyrie Irving, on their side to match or beat anything Milwaukee tried to muster. Then there was the abyss into which the Bucks were peering: Teams that fall behind 3-0 in an NBA best-of-seven series are 0-142 in trying to come back to win.

Only the unexpected happened: The Bucks found poise in the closing moments to win 86-83. Poise that was glaringly missing when they dropped Games 1 and 2 of the series in Brooklyn and poise that was in short supply for most of Thursday’s clash.

“Your character is tested in the playoffs. Character was tested coming into this game,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “The group has got high character and responded. Now we have to get ready to do it again.”

Game Recap: Bucks 86, Nets 83

Even when things were going crazily well in the first quarter – the Bucks jumped out to a 30-9 lead – it was out of character, fueled by adrenaline and probably not sustainable. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton combined for all 30 of their team’s points in the period, while the Nets shot just 5-for-25. And sure enough, Brooklyn heated up to 16-for-21 in the second and outscored the Bucks, 31-15.

From there, it was bare knuckles and all thumbs, defense and scrambling making up for the teams’ combined 33.7% shooting (32-for-95). Milwaukee took only 12 minutes to score 30, then needed almost 35 minutes to get another 50.

Somehow, though, after all the starts and stops, the bungled chances and squandered possessions — Antetokounmpo antagonized his own home fans by jacking up eight 3-pointers, hitting only one, and Budenholzer deserves secondary blame for not stopping him — the Bucks found their best selves when it mattered most.

Out of their “Geez, Louise” timeout after Durant’s shot made it 83-80, the ball got to Khris Middleton, who had a lane to the rim. Blake Griffin contested, then got a hand tangled in the net to gift Middleton the bucket on a goaltend.

“Getting to my spots,” Middleton said, on the formula to his 35-point success Thursday. “Making the right pass, making the right reads. I could see what they were trying to give me. Just tried to take advantage of that. I feel I can score in all different ways.”

Khris Middleton leads Milwaukee with 35 points and 15 rebounds.

Brooklyn’s Joe Harris, on a nightmarish 1-for-11 shooting night, missed a 19-footer with 53 seconds left. When Griffin blocked a drive by Antetokounmpo with 44 seconds left and Middleton missed from 13 feet at 36.1, the Net had the ball and that three-point lead.

Milwaukee, though, took away Durant and Irving as options on the possession. So it fell to Bruce Brown — journeyman by name, highly effective Thursday night — to pull up for a 15-foot shot. His miss went to Antetokounmpo, and then to Bucks point guard Jrue Holiday.

Budenholzer skipped the timeout, urging Holiday to push the ball. Saddled with a leaden shooting touch to that point — just 3-for-13 — the 30-year-old Holiday dribbled up the right side, veered past Harris and noticed only Brown in front of him.

“I think in my head I was kind of thinking, maybe I should run some clock,” said Milwaukee’s biggest offseason acquisition, one brought in for precisely these moments. “At that point, honestly, I just went for it. Made a move, saw the rim and laid it up.”

One spin move and Holiday went up for a layup, giving Milwaukee an 84-83 lead with 11.4 seconds left. The crowd that had amused itself by chanting invective at Durant during the game’s grindy stretch erupted joyfully, as did thousands more in the plaza outside the arena.

Jrue Holiday hits go-ahead layup with 11.4 seconds left

Only Brooklyn wasn’t done. With the Net inbounding in the front court, the Bucks’ defense again tightened around Durant and Irving, leaving that man again — Brown — to drive into the lane. Brook Lopez, whose lack of quickness enabled Brown to burn him for repeated buckets off pick-and-rolls in the second quarter, closed on him. And Brown’s layup missed.

“I knew I had to be better,” said Lopez, who blocked six shots. “The play got a little away from Brooklyn. Once I saw him get the ball, I just had to try to meet him at the basket.”

Middleton sank two free throws with 2.1 seconds left that made it 86-83. But even then, Nets coach Steve Nash drew up a play to get the ball into Durant’s hands one last time. That’s when Tucker and the clock bothered Durant, aiming to tie, into his 28-footer that kicked off the back rim.

“It just took everybody,” Budenholzer said.

Said Holiday of the two final defensive stops: “Attention to the detail. Being able to kind of determine where guys were going and making it difficult for ‘em. Then really just locking in and being competitive. … Eighty-three points? I feel like, for us, that’s the type of defense we want to play.”

So Milwaukee and its fans might not trust Game 3’s giddy first 12 minutes. They can pick apart all the flaws and failings of the next 34-and-change. But those final 83 seconds were the Bucks’ finest, their grittiest and most postseason-worthy of this series. And, they hope, the most replicable.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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