From start to finish, there were three great teams in the Eastern Conference this season. The Philadelphia 76ers earned the top seed, so it’s the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks in the 2-3 series on the other side of the bracket. The Bucks have already exorcised their demons by sweeping the Miami Heat in the first round, but they didn’t make big changes (regarding both personnel and scheme) this year just to get back the conference semifinals. And with all their talent, the Nets have the highest of expectations. So one of these teams will go home disappointed.
It’s a series with a ton of star power, but it’s a matchup of two very different teams. Brooklyn had the best offense in the first round, while Milwaukee had the best defense. It will be strength vs. strength on one end of the floor, and it has the potential to be the best series we see this year, with some of the best players in the world going head to head for six or seven games.
Three things to watch
1. Will the Nets have the required urgency? The Nets probably should have swept the shorthanded Celtics in the first round. But a 125-119 loss in Game 3 was further evidence that they can let their guard down on defense. In fact, Games 3 and 4 were two of the Celtics’ five most efficient scoring games of the season. Brooklyn was good enough offensively (their 128 points scored per 100 possessions was the most efficient series for any team in the last 25 years) to get away with mediocre defense against a 7 seed missing one of its best players, but they can’t get away with a lack of focus and/or effort against Milwaukee.
2. Options at the 5. With Brook Lopez or Bobby Portis playing all non-garbage-time minutes, the Bucks didn’t use Giannis Antetokounmpo or P.J. Tucker at center at all in the first round. But 22 of the 57 regular-season minutes where they used an Antetokounmpo-Tucker frontline (with both Lopez and Portis off the floor) came in the two games against Brooklyn last month. The Nets played DeAndre Jordan in the regular season series and used him as the primary defender on Antetokounmpo, but Jordan has played just five total minutes in the 11 games since those two in Milwaukee. In the first round, the Nets played small (with Kevin Durant or Jeff Green at center) for 66 minutes (13.2 per game) and struggled on the glass whether they were playing small or not. Nicolas Claxton gives them a combination of size and mobility that they don’t have otherwise, but has played just 52 career games in the NBA.
3. One-on-one or four-on-three? Connected to the lineups is how each team wants to defend pick-and-rolls and whether they want to the opponent to play one-on-one (switching screens and encouraging isolations) or four-on-three (by bringing two defenders to the ball and encouraging ball movement). The Bucks were able to keep Lopez near the basket against the Heat, but that will be more difficult against all the shooting that the Nets can put on the floor. Playing Tucker at the five will allow them to switch all screens, keep the ball in front of them, and force Brooklyn to beat them over the top. The Nets switched most screens against the Celtics, who had Jayson Tatum attack Blake Griffin. The Bucks, of course, could find favorable matchups if the Nets’ guards get caught defending Antetokounmpo inside.
Number to know
92 — In 636 career games (regular season and playoffs), Giannis Antetokounmpo has attempted more than 25 shots from the field 23 times. Three of those 23 occasions were the Bucks’ three games against the Nets this season (none of which went to overtime), with his 92 total field goal attempts over the three games being 38 more than he attempted against any other team. Brooklyn encouraged Antetokounmpo to shoot and he obliged. His usage rate of 48.8% in the Bucks’ win on May 2 was the second highest for any player in a game this season, and his 39.7 points were the most for any player against the Nets.
The positive aspect for the Nets was that only 47 (51%) of Antetokounmpo’s 92 shots came in the paint, and that was his second lowest rate vs. any opponent this season. Among 230 players who took at least 100 shots in the paint and 100 shots from outside the paint, he had the biggest difference between how well he shot inside (69.0%) and how well he shot outside (32.4%). So, critical for any defense is keeping the two-time MVP away from the basket. Of course, the Bucks’ two wins over the Nets were two of the six times in his career that Antetokounmpo has made four or more 3-pointers. In the first round vs. Miami, Antetokounmpo shot just 5-for-26 (19%) from outside the paint (4-for-10 from mid-range and 1-for-16 from 3-point range), so expect the Nets to continue to play him soft.
The Nets are not good enough defensively to make quick work of the Bucks, who have three guyss — Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton — who can really take advantage of a mistake-prone defense. Milwaukee can also hurt the Nets (who ranked last in defensive rebounding percentage in the first round) on the glass as much as Boston did. And Antetokounmpo, Holiday, Middleton and Tucker are as equipped as any group in the league to defend the Nets’ three stars. But can they keep Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving in check four times in seven games? With their talent and the ability to beat great defense with even better offense, the Nets should be able to survive and advance. Nets in 7.
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