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

How will Bucks respond in must-win Game 6?

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee need to find answers fast in order to keep their season alive.

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

The Bucks will need to bounce back during Game 6 in Milwaukee on Thursday.

OK, Giannis, your turn.

If only it were that simple, right? If only Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo could dial up on demand the best performance of his career and give the Bucks precisely what they need in Game 6 Thursday – the way Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant did in Game 5 – there’d be no fretting at Fiserv Forum. Folks could enjoy the balling, fast-forward to Saturday and remove the “if necessary” from in front of Game 7.

It’s not that simple. Antetokounmpo and his Bucks must do what they can, however they can, to stave off elimination, even the series and push it all back to Brooklyn. Durant’s work Tuesday was a masterpiece – 47 points, 17 rebounds, 10 assists, the first such stat line in NBA playoff history – but the Bucks contributed.

Contributed in ways that need to change if they want to spare Milwaukee, if only for a couple more days, from another offseason of bitter Deer taste.

And if Philadelphia coughing up a 26-point lead to Atlanta in Game 5 Wednesday makes the Bucks feel any better about blowing their own 17-point lead 24 hours earlier, this thing might already be over.

The comments coming from the Bucks’ Zoom room after Game 5 were docile, long on praise of Durant but short on ‘fessing up about their role in the outcome. Oh, Jrue Holiday was a little growly about the officiating, which had him saddled with three fouls in the first half and three more starters lugging around two. Their coach, Mike Budenholzer, stuck to the unwritten book and sat them accordingly.

Beyond that, there wasn’t much about how Brooklyn kept Durant more free and comfortable than in Games 3 and 4 in Milwaukee. Or any regrets about guarding him primarily 1-on-1, on a night when the Nets’ next two biggest threats – James Harden and Kyrie Irving – were hobbled and out, respectively. Or specifically on treating Harden, moving about as well as your grandpa in his recovery from right hamstring tightness, as if he was prime 2018 MVP Harden.

The Bucks rarely forced the ball out of Durant’s hands. They hardly got Harden moving or chasing defensively at all, and never lured him into testing his hamstring on a cutting or explosive drive to the basket.

Inside the NBA breaks down Brooklyn's Game 5 win over Milwaukee.

Despite the Nets’ size limitations, the Bucks ran their offense too often as if Rudy Gobert or Joel Embiid suddenly had thrown on a “BKLYN” jersey and planted himself in the paint. They squandered possessions from which they should have been squeezing every last fraction of a point by hoisting 3-point shots – “Hey, that’s just how they play,” as Charles Barkley mocked from the postgame studio – and compounded that problem by grabbing only four offensive rebounds.

That was enough to enable Brooklyn to get by with reserve Jeff Green, who missed the series’ first three games to plantar-fascia foot pain, and some spurts of Blake Griffin as Durant’s only real help.

Irving, the All-Star shot maker who left Game 3 with a severe right ankle sprain, wasn’t even on the Nets’ travel roster for Game 6. But Harden held up for 46 minutes Tuesday and might be improved. And at some point, role players such as Bruce Brown, Mike James and Joe Harris who pestered Milwaukee early in the series will make their presence felt again. Harris has shot 4-of-20 on 3-pointers the past three games, but led the NBA in accuracy (47.5%) from the arc in the regular season.

Better to challenge one of those guys to win the game, though, than to let Durant seek out his spots so easily again and elevate into unobstructed looks. One of the ideas floating around after Game 5, though, seemed like a potential trap for the Bucks: assigning Antetokounmpo to be Durant’s primary defender.

Using the Greek Freak on the Thin Man probably should have been in Milwaukee’s defensive mix before now, but in limited stretches or critical moments, mostly to change things up. It would be feel-good folly to make it a full-time thing, because Durant moves a lot more fluidly going forward than Antetokounmpo does going backward.

And foul trouble is the last thing the Bucks need from their two-time MVP. Given his penchant for picking up one or two offensive fouls nightly, the result could be Antetokounmpo getting less aggressive at both ends. That would hurt rather than help his team’s defense on Durant and possibly – ugh – nudge Antetokounmpo to seek and aim more jump shots.

It’s tricky enough for Milwaukee to put the ball in its leading scorer’s hands late in games, when his foul shooting makes the choice easy for the Nets or any other team determined to slow him.

Antetokounmpo and the Bucks have to save his shooting workshop till summer rather than using playoff games for it. And do whatever it takes to make sure the summer workshop is not open for business by Friday.

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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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