MILWAUKEE -- Late in the fourth quarter on Sunday afternoon, Giannis Antetokounmpo turned the ball over. His frustration evident, he took off down the court, sprinting so fast that when he launched himself in the air to try and disrupt Alize Johnson, he had to grab onto the rim to make sure he landed safely. A few seconds later, after he'd regained his balance, he obliterated a Reggie Perry hook shot to start a fastbreak that he finished with an alley-oop slam.
That flurry from the two-time MVP was the exclamation point on a 107-96 Game 4 win for the Milwaukee Bucks as they evened their second-round series with the Brooklyn Nets at 2-2. Leading the way as per usual, Giannis finished with 34 points and 12 rebounds for his third game in this series with at least 30 points and 10 rebounds.
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On either side of their hero's thrilling sequence in the final minutes, the jubilant crowd inside Fiserv Forum broke into their favorite chant: "Bucks in six!" This time last week, following the Bucks' embarrassing loss in Game 2, that would have been unthinkable. Now, it's a real possibility, especially with James Harden and Kyrie Irving possibly unavailable moving forward.
In the middle of the second quarter of Game 4, Irving went up for a layup and severely twisted his ankle upon landing. He went straight to the locker room once he made it to his feet, and didn't return to the game. After he left, the Nets were outscored 63-56, and it was only even that close because they went on a run in garbage time to make the final score respectable.
Irving's X-rays came back negative, but he still has to undergo further evaluations and reportedly left the arena on crutches and in a walking boot. At this point there's no timetable on his recovery, and Nets head coach Steve Nash said that all the team can do is hope.
"I have no idea what is going to happen with Ky in the coming days," Nash said. We will cross our fingers and hope that it is better than I don't know -- better than what -- better than missing the next game?"
Nash added that he doesn't want Irving's injury to put any pressure on Harden to return before he's ready. Harden limped off with a hamstring injury in the first minute of Game 1, and hasn't played since. While he's improved to the point of doing on-court work there's still a "gap to make up" before he's able to go full speed in a playoff game.
"I don't want James to be rushed back," Nash said. "If he's able to play next game or the game after, that's fantastic. If he's not, we don't want to rush him back and jeopardize doing something worse or making this a long-term injury."
All of a sudden, the Bucks have a fantastic opportunity. Yes, the Nets still have Durant and home-court advantage, but the premise of their superteam was built on having their stars available. With one out they're still pretty great, and with two out they'll be able to manage, but they're no longer world beaters.
But while it's impossible to ignore the fact that the Nets are currently down two future Hall of Famers, the Bucks can't change their approach or lose the focus that's helped them get back into the series.
"It doesn't matter who's out there. We want to make sure that we continue to play our type of game," Pat Connaughton said. "For us, it's about continuing to focus on our brand of basketball. The toughness on the defensive end, the things that we instill in ourselves and in each other on that end. And then the ball movement, player movement that we have on the offensive end. I think that is the most important thing as we continue to move forward. Whoever is out in front of us, whoever the other team puts out in front of us, I don't think we need to put much weight into."
Barring some sort of miraculous recovery from Harden or Irving, the Bucks should be favorites at this point to return to the Eastern Conference finals for the second time in three seasons. After a few disappointing playoff runs, things are breaking their way this time around. They can't let this fortuitous turn of events go to waste.