2021 Playoffs: East Semifinal | Nets (2) vs. Bucks (3)
Nets hope home court, heavy dose of Kevin Durant can swing Game 7
With berth in East finals on the line, Brooklyn will need another epic performance from its superstar in Game 7.
The longer an NBA playoff series lasts, the shorter the relative term “lately” becomes. As in, “What you have done for us lately?”
In Kevin Durant’s case with the Brooklyn Nets, “lately” means something less than 96 hours, which will be the gap counting backward from tipoff of Game 7 Saturday night at Barclays Center to Durant’s stunning Game 5 performance that made this Eastern Conference semifinals finale possible.
Oh, Durant was good in Game 6, scoring 32 points with 11 rebounds. But he was all-galaxy in Game 5, going for 49 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists to spot the Nets to a 3-2 series lead and spot them their “out of rhythm, out of sync” night in Milwaukee Thursday.
No matter how urgent or frustrating their 104-89 loss in Game 6 got for them in the moment, the Nets knew they had Game 7 in their back pockets. At home. With, yeah, Durant.
“I’m not trying to be a hero out there,” Durant said late Thursday, the series about to shift East one more time. “I know I can’t win a ballgame by myself.”
The Nets seem to know that. The Bucks cling to that hope. But it’s hard to imagine Brooklyn advancing from a Game 7 to the conference finals without something special, again, from their (and arguably the league’s) best player.
Admittedly, there’s a tinge of ingratitude to this, expecting Durant to muster up the guile and stamina in his lean, lanky frame to carry the biggest load yet again. It’s like savoring and sweating through a legendary musical artist’s three-hour show filled with so many hits and deep tracks – could be Springsteen, could be [fill in your favorite] – and when it’s over, reaching for your phone flashlight in a plea/demand for more.
It’s the life they’ve chosen, though, and a big reason all those dollars flow and eyeballs pay attention. A prime-time Game 7 hardly seems the situation for Durant to be ordinary, even his ordinary, any more than it does for Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, his All-Star counterpart on the other side.
In Durant’s case, the math that makes this such a command performance is clear: Brooklyn’s Big Three is down to something like 1.75 now. Guard James Harden has been back for two games now and his contributions in Game 6 were valuable (16 points, five rebounds, seven assists in 40 minutes), but his mobility still is limited by an unreliable right hamstring. Third star Kyrie Irving was deemed out Friday by coach Steve Nash due to the badly sprained right ankle he suffered in Game 4.
In a less talent-dependent league, role players such as Jeff Green, Blake Griffin, Joe Harris, Bruce Brown and Mike James individually or collectively would pick up the slack rather than heaping more on Durant’s plate. There’s a long tradition in the NBA of such teammates playing better at home than on the road.
But those contributions help most as happy surprises, not as something on which a team ever should count. Factor in Nash’s tightened rotation and trust levels in the first Game 7 of his coaching career and it’s pretty clear this will be a go-big-on-Durant-or-go-home event for the Nets.
Durant knows it, too. He was tweaking his finale imperatives in his head only moments after Game 6 was over.
“I’ve got to keep the ball in my hands a little bit more,” he said. He also wants to stay aggressive start to finish and, fine, take advantage when Milwaukee’s defense starts to cheat off one of those aforementioned role players.
That’s the dilemma facing the Bucks. The more they load up defensively on Durant, the more opportunity they that might open up for Green, Harris, Griffin or the others to make a play or hit a shot. And then gain rhythm and confidence.
That would make Durant doubly dangerous, the way he found help in Game 5. And if Harden is recovered just that much more in the past two days, he could be a real problem as the thin man’s relief valve.
“What we can’t do is get frustrated with him scoring and have people start trying to help and now everybody else starts scoring,” said P.J. Tucker, the burly Bucks defender. “That’s when it gets ugly.”
Tucker, friendly with Durant off the court in spite of so many battles on it, relishes his mano-a-mano clashes. But it’s based on team need, not just individual challenge.
“My job is to keep him in front,” Tucker said, “fight him as much as I can and make sure nobody else has to help so they can stay home on their man. That’s my job.
“I haven’t seen a player score 100 points. I didn’t see Wilt [Chamberlain] do that. If you can guard everybody else and make them make plays, make them beat you, I think that’s the key.”
To even just slow Durant, Tucker will need to stay out of foul trouble. Antetokounmpo will need to play with the same discipline, when he gutted Brooklyn’s defense from the inside, eschewed any low-return 3-point attempts, made more than half his free throws and kept himself on the court by not getting suckered into charging fouls.
Milwaukee probably will need to treat Khris Middleton like its No. 1 guy again, running offense through him, trusting his decisions and putting the ball in his hands late. The veteran wing is the Bucks’ most trustworthy shooter, from arc, mid-range or line, so when he scores big (38 in Game 6), Antetokoumpo (30) feels like a deadly bonus.
As for the Bucks’ others, there’s no time left for them to wait for a home game to step up. The last time they played a Game 7 – vs. Boston in the first round in 2018 – Middleton, Antetokounmpo and Eric Bledsoe (think Jrue Holiday in the current crew) combined for 77 points, but eight other teammates who played managed only 19 in elimination.
“It’s hard. That’s what makes it sweet,” said Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer, who might be down to this one game to determine his job status. “It’s hard for both teams, but being on the road, we just have to be more together.”
If NBA playoff history can provide a clue, home teams have won Game 7 77.9% of the time (109-31). Except in the case of Milwaukee opponents, who have won 100%. The Bucks are 0-7 all-time when playing Game 7 on the road. The Nets, injured or not, are 34-8 at home this season, including 6-0 so far in the postseason.
“As I’ve said all season long, we are built for this moment,” Antetokounmpo said. “Simple as that.”
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