NEW YORK -- It didn't happen the way the Milwaukee Bucks -- or anyone on Earth -- envisioned it, but they're in the conference finals. After wasting what looked like a golden opportunity in Game 1, bumbling through the most putrid performance any team has had in these playoffs in Game 2, delivering an even worse offensive showing in Game 3 and blowing a 17-point lead (and another injury-induced opportunity) in Game 5, they sent the Brooklyn Nets packing in Game 7 at Barclays Center.
The Bucks survived 53 grueling minutes and a series full of twists and turns with a 115-111 overtime win on Saturday, four days after Kevin Durant seemingly lit the entire franchise on fire in the same building. They survived Brook Lopez coming out of a late-game timeout unaware that only two seconds remained on the shot clock, committing a tragic turnover that directly led to an almost-legendary Durant shot with 1.6 seconds left in regulation.
About that Durant shot: He caught the ball well beyond the 3-point line on the right side of the floor, took two dribbles to his left, spun the other way, stepped back and made a jumper with P.J. Tucker draped all over him. It would have been an absolute prayer if almost anyone else in NBA history had taken it. It surprised nobody when it fell through the net.
"I actually just laughed after he made it because it was incredible," Tucker said. "I actually appreciated it, being a fan of the game. You see somebody make that kind of shot, you gotta appreciate it, even though it's on you."
"A couple of us said, 'We got lucky his toe was on the line,'" the Bucks' Khris Middleton said.
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Durant played every second and finished with 48 points on 17-for-36 shooting, with nine rebounds, and six assists. In far and away the biggest game of his career, Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 40 points on 15-for-24 shooting, with 13 rebounds and five assists. Fans loudly counted each of the seconds Antetokounmpo took to gear up for his 14 free throws, and, though he air-balled one of them, he made a respectable eight. Both he and James Harden, the latter playing his third consecutive game through what he revealed to be a Grade 2 hamstring strain, banked in 3-pointers.
For Milwaukee, the victory was a monument to sticking with it. The Bucks entered Game 7 having lost all four games they'd played in Brooklyn this season. They'd scored 102 points per 100 possessions in Games 1 through 6, which would've ranked dead last in the regular season. Near the end of the first half, they trailed by double digits. They came back despite Tucker committing his fifth foul with 7:11 left in the fourth quarter and Jrue Holiday committing his fifth about two minutes later.
Holiday was shooting 2-for-17 and 0-for-5 from 3-point range when he made a spot-up 3 with 5:23 left in regulation. He followed that up by assisting Middleton on a 3, then making a step-back 3, a pull-up 2 and a pair of free throws before overtime began. Middleton missed 12 of his first 16 shots, but made the go-ahead bucket -- a spinning turnaround over Bruce Brown from 13 feet -- off a pick-and-roll with 40 seconds left.
Middleton's clutch shot was one of three field goals made by either team in the extra period. The Bucks were scoreless in overtime until Antetokounmpo rattled in a jump hook over Durant with 1:12 on the clock. Durant had a chance to avoid elimination in the final seconds and took another toe-on-the-line turnaround. This time, against Holiday, the shot didn't even reach the rim.
"Just to be able to fight through it, man, stay close as a team, and get a stop — it literally came down to the last shot — it's kind of storybook," Holiday said.
Milwaukee's offense was disjointed for significant stretches of every single game against the Nets. That the Bucks trailed by as many as 49 points in one of them against an opponent missing an All-Star is unusual for a contender, but their foibles are only different from recent champions' in degree, not kind. They overcame their half-court struggles by hitting the offensive glass, getting to the free throw line, getting stops and scoring in transition. If that sounds familiar, it's because last year's Los Angeles Lakers won a championship with the same formula.
Milwaukee has disappointed in the playoffs in the last two seasons, so its shaky moments against Brooklyn were widely seen as signs of imminent doom. Those Lakers, however, were discombobulated in the seeding games in the NBA bubble. They dropped the openers in their first two series, and for a moment they looked flummoxed by the Houston Rockets' unconventional style. After LeBron James was caught on camera yelling about their spacing, they downsized and, eventually, dominated.
The previous season's champions, the Toronto Raptors, dropped their playoff opener too, and were terrible Game 3 of the second round and Game 2 of the conference finals. Those Raptors came as close as you can get to falling down 3-0 against the Bucks, only to eke out a win and turn everything around, like Milwaukee did this time. Occasionally, a team like the 2017 Golden State Warriors will steamroll through the competition, but that is the exception, not the rule. Title teams don't necessarily avoid blowouts and blown leads, even in the playoffs. They bounce back from them. The 2011 Dallas Mavericks didn't fold after the Brandon Roy Game. The 2012 Miami Heat fell down 2-1 to the Indiana Pacers and 3-2 to the Boston Celtics.
"I almost got emotional a little bit out there because like, the team really, really tried their best, and we kept our composure," Antetokounmpo said. "We were down 2-0, a lot of people didn't believe that we could make it."
Tucker said Game 7 felt like "the longest game ever." Both teams knew exactly what the other was trying to do, and by the end they'd made all the adjustments they were going to make. Durant and Harden never sat, and six players logged 98 percent of the Bucks' minutes, the result of Donte DiVincenzo's ankle injury and several key reserves' defensive limitations. Crunch time was chaos, and everybody was exhausted. Ultimately, Milwaukee did just enough.
"They made a couple plays where, you know, you would think they were going to win the game," Middleton said. "But we stayed with it."
If Lopez reacts a split-second later with a minute left in overtime and doesn't block Durant's driving layup, or if Joe Harris doesn't miss a wide-open 3 right after that, it might have been the banged-up Nets talking proudly about all they'd overcome to get to the next round. Instead, after Lopez had pounded the floor in jubilation, buzzer had sounded and the stands had mostly emptied, there was Antetokounmpo, looking up at a section full of of Greek fans who had stuck around to salute him.
Antetokounmpo let out an appreciative scream, then walked through the tunnel en route to another challenge. It is important, he said, to cherish this moment and enjoy the atmosphere, regardless of past outcomes, regardless of the pressure the Bucks are under.
"We believe in who we are," he said.