As their series against Brooklyn shifts home to Milwaukee for Games 3 and 4, the Bucks might as well violate virus protocols to handle turndown service and that mints-on-their-pillows duty at whatever luxury hotel the Nets choose.
That still wouldn’t make Brooklyn feel as comfortable as it did Monday with Milwaukee’s toothless resistance in the Nets’ 125-86 rout in Game 2 at Barclays Center.
Allowing the Nets shooters to shoot nearly as well on 3-pointers (21 of 42) and they did on 2-pointers (28 of 52)? That was bad. Scoring only 86 points — a season-low by 10 — against a defense considered laughable by the standards of serious championship contenders when this postseason began? That was worse.
Falling behind by 17 in the first quarter, 27 in the second, 30 in the third and (ugh) 49 in the fourth? That was the worst. Milwaukee’s last lead in the series came with 9:02 left in the second quarter of Game 1, which means they’ve gone more than 81 minutes with no leads or ties.
But for sheer futility and timidity, this stretch is the most humiliating and troublesome of all for the Bucks. After sending Kevin Durant to the foul line five times in the first five minutes of Game 2, they didn’t send him or any other Brooklyn player to the line for almost 39 minutes. During which time the deficit facing Milwaukee ballooned from six to 46.
You’d think frustration or embarrassment alone might have prompted a Bucks player to whack somebody, anybody. Let off some steam, disrupt Brooklyn’s rhythm, interrupt the home crowd’s party, something.
Look, this is 2021. Nobody’s advocating for a Kevin McHale clothesline on Kurt Rambis, a la the 1984 Finals. That level of assault today would get a player tossed, suspended, maybe sent to the hoosegow.
But hard fouls, tough defensive fouls, happen all the time in today’s NBA and particularly as the games get played in the postseason. If a team isn’t going to play forcefully enough to spark a few whistles, then maybe it’s time to retire the old “no layups in the playoffs” cliché as mere throwback bluster.
When Durant can take his final 15 shots without getting his elbow tapped or his shorts wrinkled — on a night when he made 12 of 18 overall — then “no layups” isn’t real. Because for the Nets’ sharpshooting thin man, 18 feet out is a layup.
It wasn’t until the game was long decided that Bucks deep reserve Mamadi Diakite sent Brooklyn’s Tyler Johnson to the line by mushing Johnson to the floor by his face. As least the seldom-used, two-way signee out of Virginia showed a little backbone on the visitors’ behalf.
When you’ve got P.J. Tucker, Brook Lopez, Bobby Portis and Thanasis Antetokounmpo on your roster and they don’t use at least 16 of their possible 24 fouls, you’re either winning in a laugher or you’re not playing ruggedly enough.
And again, it’s not a matter of getting physical to start fights. It’s planting a seed, it’s exacting a price, it’s saying no. And a lot of times, it’s instilling some of that defensive aggression into a team’s offense. Dishing contact at one end can make absorbing it more natural at the other, so maybe the Bucks would have attacked the paint and gone to the rim more than they did.
That’s where Milwaukee has a clear advantage in size and style over the Nets, yet it didn’t flex it. The Bucks’ 52 points in the paint Monday were 20 fewer than they got in Game 1. Yielding to the temptation of jacking jump shots out of isolation, rather than involving two or three teammates in plays to exploit Brooklyn’s interior, the Bucks made it easy on the defensively-challenged home squad.
Whenever Giannis Antetokounmpo pulls up at the 3-point line (and especially early in the shot clock) to focus and aim, he needs to at least check out his peripheral vision to notice all the Nets smiling. It’s the stripe closer in that matters; the two-time Kia MVP missed 5 out of 7 at the line. Brooklyn didn’t foul much either, but the way things went, it didn’t need to.
Every coach and well-rehearsed player in the league will tell you that intensity and the success that accompanies it starts on defense. The Bucks have lived that ethos for most of three seasons. But it hasn’t been there yet in this series, which is half over for Milwaukee.
“We’ve got to do a better job of getting those guys off their spots,” said wing Khris Middleton, struggling at both ends so far. “They got everything they wanted and whichever way they wanted it. Whether it was with the drives, with the isos, with the screens and actually passes. Got to find a way to eliminate most of those things. Just force them wherever we want them to go instead of them dictating offensively and on the defensive end.”
Now the games shift to Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum, with a knee-buckling burden on the home court and zero margin for error. If 2-0 is a problem in an NBA best-of-seven, 3-0 is terminal. Whatever the Bucks summoned to start these playoffs and sweep Miami needs to be there Thursday (7:30 ET, TNT).
Frankly, at this point, the only team that should be feeling worse than Milwaukee is the Heat.
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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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