Bucks-Nets Series Preview: Giannis vs KD, Harden the defender? And Brook Lopez looms large

Brooklyn. Milwaukee. This series has everything.

The league’s most awesome, fear-inducing offense against its most talented defensive starting five. Three MVPs at or near the peak of their powers. Six All-Stars still in their prime, three on each side, plus four others with All-Star appearances on their resume.

Giannis vs. Durant. Harden vs. Holiday. Irving vs. Middleton.

This series has the ingredients to be an all-time classic, and the best series of the playoffs despite being just a round 2 matchup.

“There’s no question the potential is there,” Steve Nash said. “We will see how it plays out, but they’re playing as well as any team in the league right now, and we have the talent to match any team in the league. It’s just a matter of who performs, who has that grit and toughness to try to get ahead in this series, and then see how the other team responds. So, but definitely on paper you could see this being a classic series.”

Despite having the league’s fourth- and eighth-best records, respectively, this could easily be a face-off for the championship. The Nets and Bucks have the league’s two most top-heavy rosters and showed in the first round just how impossible a matchup they can be at full strength.

Brooklyn’s seemingly unstoppable attack skewered Boston to the tune of 128.0 points per 100 possessions through five games. Milwaukee, meanwhile, achieved the opposite feat with its suffocating defense against Miami, holding the Heat to a piddling 95.4 per 100 in a four-game sweep.

Bucks Defense vs. Nets Offense

Let’s start at the top: Milwaukee is one of the few teams that can match up with the Nets’ historic offensive talent one-on-one. With three of the best individual creators in the league and an insanely proficient shooter on the wing, no opponent puts more stress on a defense’s ability to contain the ball than Brooklyn. So talented are they that the Nets were the league’s top-ranked offense* even with their three stars hardly ever playing in the same game.

Milwaukee, however, has multiple elite defenders to throw at the Nets’ stars. The Bucks can put Jrue Holiday on Kyrie Irving, Khris Middleton on James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo or P.J. Tucker on Kevin Durant and feel good about it. Screens, transitions and switches will muddle things, of course, and that’s where Lopez comes in.

The Bucks will likely start out in a drop coverage with Lopez defending Blake Griffin (or the other fifth Net, more on that below) and hovering near the rim, which will put a lot of pressure on Milwaukee’s guards to get over screens and “rear-view” contest off-the-dribble 3s.

Ironically, former Nets All-Star (no, really!) Lopez now looms as the most important player in this series in some ways. Can the Nets put enough pressure on him with pick-and-rolls and small-ball lineups to run him off the floor? Or, on the flip side, can Lopez mash small Brooklyn lineups badly enough in post-ups that the Nets are forced to stay big, offering Lopez a convenient hiding spot on defense?

It is truly a game of individual matchups.

Who is the 5th guy in the Nets rotation?

This is where the Nets’ fifth starter (or, more importantly, fifth finisher) becomes the series’ most interesting strategic choice. Steve Nash has four realistic options to pair with Irving, Harden, Durant and Joe Harris: Jeff Green, Griffin, Bruce Brown, and Nicolas Claxton. All of them having glaring negatives, however.

Seemingly the best answer is Green, who can at least kinda sorta match Antetokounmpo’s size and would be more disposable in terms of fouls. Offensively, the Nets could use him as a floor-spacing five, hoping that he could bomb corner 3s and pull Lopez away from the basket. However, Green’s first-round plantar fascia injury leaves his status in doubt. He is supposed to be re-evaluated early next week, but “re-evaluated” is sometimes a long way from “playing.”

Griffin started in the Boston series, but his presence against Milwaukee would leave the Nets with a mismatch against the Greek Freak. Griffin doesn’t have the footspeed to hang with him, and the other alternative, putting Durant on him, is no bueno. While Durant matches his length, Antetokounmpo can easily overpower Durant and put fouls on him.

Claxton’s physical profile makes it equally hard to put him on Antetokounmpo, even though he might be the best overall player among Brooklyn’s bigs. He could be an interesting wrinkle while Green is out, but he’ll get trucked by Giannis.

DeAndre Jordan didn’t play at all in the Boston series, but he was the Nets’ primary defender on Antetokounmpo in the regular season. The Nets, however, had him playing an extreme version of a drop coverage, one that left them extremely vulnerable to any Antetokounmpo screening action. Also, while Antetokounmpo took the bait and launched some early-clock 3s against this coverage, you could see him figure out that short pull-ups were there for the taking. Jordan’s presence also takes the Nets out of their much-preferred switching strategy.

Brown’s lack of size and shooting are probably too much of a liability in combination, although he surely will see some run off the bench. Brown is likely a bit too small to handle Antetokounmpo and could even have trouble with Middleton, while the Bucks could put Antetokounmpo on him at the other end and use him as a roamer.

Harden Guards Giannis and the domino effect?

All of which takes us back to … Harden? Yes, James Harden. He might be the Nets’ least-bad option to put on Antetokounmpo. He’s very good defending against post-ups, and has the strength to withstand Giannis’s overpowering Eurostep through the chest. This matchup also lets Durant guard Middleton, and use his length to take away the pull-ups that Middelton usually feasts on against smaller defenders.

However, this result would also represent a tactical victory of sorts of the Nets, because of Tucker’s meager offensive contributions. While he is capable of making corner 3s, he hasn’t been scaring anybody from there this season and he has near-zero threat capability anyplace else on the floor. Durant could “guard” him while standing at the charge circle and using his length to deter shots at the rim. Also, while the Bucks would theoretically have a switch-capable group on the floor that can match up with anybody, in practice they’ve looked pretty bad when they’ve tried to execute this version of their defense.

Lack of bench depth/trust

At some point, however, the Bucks will have to use a substitute, and that’s where things get interesting in the absence of DiVincenzo. Bryn Forbes was one of the Bucks’ most potent offensive players in the Miami series, hitting 16 of 33 on 3-pointers in just 80 total minutes, but hiding him on defense from the likes of Irving and Harden will be a challenge. (Ditto for his opposite number, Brooklyn’s sweet-shooting but torchable Landry Shamet.)

With Connaughton starting, however, there just aren’t a lot of other options for Milwaukee. Jeff Teague? Jordan Nwora? The options off the bench are bleak for the Bucks.

Of course, the other issue with the Bucks in the past has been just how often coach Mike Budenholzer used said bench. A year ago, limiting Antetokounmpo and Middleton to minute totals in the mid-30s in the first three games of the Miami series left the Bucks behind the eight-ball, while a similar scene played out as a 2-0 lead withered against Toronto a year earlier.

It appears Budenholzer is more willing to push it this time around — Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday played 45, 45 and 42 minutes, respectively, in the Game 1 overtime win against Miami. Those marginal extra minutes likely meant the difference between victory and defeat and could easily do so again in a series that appears so close on paper.

So close, in fact that one suspects it may ultimately be the absence of players rather than their presence that determines the outcome. The Bucks are already without DiVincenzo, and that puts them at a clear disadvantage; it hurts Milwaukee much more than any missed time from Green harms Brooklyn.

Best ability is availability

The underlying stories of this Nets team is the health and availability of all three stars this season.

Harden and Durant had extended absences due to hamstring injuries, Durant tore his Achilles two years ago, and Kyrie Irving is Kyrie Irving: He’s played just 74 total games in his two seasons as a Net. If one of the three Brooklyn stars turns an ankle, this series changes very quickly.

The other issue here is that the Nets are making up for lost time. Their three stars had only played eight games and 202 minutes together before the postseason started, and while overwhelming talent can offset most of that disadvantage, this is a series where the opponent is equally formidable.

Big picture, the Nets just met each other, and while their adjustment thus far has been remarkable, what they’re attempting to do in the postseason is quite a bit different than knocking off the Magic on a random night in February. Meanwhile, this iteration of the Bucks is in its third season together, has accumulated more than its share of postseason wounds and by all appearances is hell-bent on removing the stain of the past two postseasons.

Bucks X-Factor: Jrue Holiday

The Bucks put all their chips into the center of the table when they landed Holiday this offseason. He is the piece they felt put them over the top. Now it is time to prove them right.

Players around the league, including Durant, identify Jrue Holiday as one of the NBA’s absolute best defenders. Few players willingly accept the same vast array of assignments and manage to make things as difficult on opponents as Holiday. His ability to defend multiple positions, including larger players, allowed the Bucks to experiment with defensive versatility.

Unfortunately for the Bucks, there is only one Jrue Holiday as a second one might be necessary against the Nets.

His defense and ability to create shots are critical to the Bucks this matchup, more so than any other team they have faced before.

Holiday needs to be able to take Kyrie or Harden out of the picture. And what I mean by that is he needs to make them so uncomfortable that they go from super efficient to inefficient. It is a high request to ask, but Holiday is capable. The move is likely putting him on Irving. Irving is more likely to isolate with the intention of scoring more so than Harden who thrives off setting up others.

I think the Bucks are fine with putting Holiday on an island with Irving and fine with the outcome.

Nets X-Factor: James Harden

Prior to the acquisition of Harden, I didn’t take the Nets serious and title contenders, mainly because I didn’t believe two stars and this supporting cast would be enough. But Harden is a superstar, the type to change series with multiple explosive games, both scoring and passing.

But the key in this series may be his defense. Think back to the OKC days where he was actually a very good defender, the one who was tasked with guarding Kobe Bryant in a playoff series. In this series he has to turn back the clock and tap into the once strength of his game as a defender as he will matchup with Giannis often.

If he can be a plus defender and make life difficult for Giannis in the post, the Nets will win this series.


Whatever team prevails in this series will also win the NBA championship. These are the league’s two most talented starting fives, and this fascinating series is gonna be fun as hell.

With that said, I am going with the Milwaukee Bucks in 6 games.

If I learned anything from the lakers this season, it is that continuity and health matter.

All it takes is one slow start from the Nets. One bad step. One of the big 3 to have an off series and the Nets can’t recover. The Nets need all three starts to play great for 4 games, and compete defensively. The Bucks just need to do what they’ve done all season.

Because there is proof the Bucks can play as a complete unit, defend and stay healthy, I give them the slight edge.

In Case You Missed It

All LeBron and the Lakers can do now is ask “What if?” and “What’s next?”

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