The Milwaukee Bucks looked different on Sunday. That is to say, they actually looked like the Milwaukee Bucks. For the first time in their second-round playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets, their offense had some pop to it.
Giannis Antetokounmpo's stat line (34 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, 14-for-26 shooting) was similar to his lines in Games 1 and 3, but this time the Bucks outscored Brooklyn by 29 points in his 38 minutes. Khris Middleton (19 points, eight assists) and Jrue Holiday (14 points, nine assists) were not flawless, but they played with purpose.
There were far fewer stagnant isolations and post-ups in the halfcourt. Milwaukee got good looks out of pick-and-rolls with Antetokounmpo as the screener, sometimes in random situations and on the side rather than as the first action and in the middle of the floor:
There were some improvisational passes, cuts and dribble-handoffs:
Even the misses looked better:
All of the plays above have one thing in common: Kyrie Irving is on the court. Yes, the biggest story coming out of the Bucks' 107-96 victory is that, for the second time in four games, the Nets finished with one less operational All-Star than they had at tip-off. And yes, Irving's early exit had something to do with the result, and with Brooklyn's decision to throw in the towel when almost five minutes remained in the fourth quarter. But after barely eking out a win in Game 3, overcoming another dull, disjointed offensive performance, Milwaukee finally had some fun. This started well before Irving turned his ankle in the second quarter.
"I think when it comes down to what our mentality has to be, it's always had to be us," Bucks wing Pat Connaughton said. "We are playing the Brooklyn Nets, but when we play our brand of basketball, we believe that we can beat anybody. And I think over the first two games, we played a little bit more similarly to the Brooklyn Nets' style of basketball."
The series opener felt like a pickup game, and Milwaukee will never win a pickup game against Kevin Durant and Irving. The second game was an unmitigated catastrophe, and the third game was a rock fight. The Bucks needed this, desperately.
"During the regular season, we didn't struggle to score," Connaughton said. "And part of that was due to ball movement, people movement, you know, making the right play and creating for each other, things of that nature, and I think we definitely took a step in the right direction today and it showed."
Milwaukee could have been even better. It shot 16-for-47 (34 percent) from 3-point range, and Connaughton pointed out that Antetokounmpo would have had more than three assists if the shooters were more accurate. Considering how poorly the Nets executed without Irving, they stayed uncomfortably close for most of the game. Creating open, in-rhythm scoring opportunities, represents progress in itself, though, and Connaughton confidently said that shooting with conviction will pay off as the series goes on.
Entering Game 4, the Bucks had scored a straight-up gross 94.6 points per 100 possessions against Brooklyn. In the portion of the game before Irving fell to the floor under the basket, the Bucks were scoring 115.8 per 100, not far off their regular-season mark. That number dipped a bit after that, but Milwaukee kept making simple plays for easy points:
Every playoff team preaches ball movement and player movement, but it takes real effort and intelligence to make it look like you're playing free and easy against teams that know all of your plays and tendencies. The Nets switch as much as they do precisely because they want to get opponents out of their sets, and their defense on Antetokounmpo's ball screens has effectively pushed Middleton and Holiday into the midrange. Like the Bucks' foes in previous postseasons, Brooklyn helps off of shooters it doesn't respect, crowds Antetokounmpo in the halfcourt, swipes at the ball when he spins and dares him to settle for jumpers. Milwaukee knew this was coming, and it thought it was equipped to handle it this time. That looked hopelessly wrong for a whole week, but the Bucks now have an opportunity to prove themselves right.
The Nets, meanwhile, must hope that either Irving or James Harden will be healed by Tuesday or Thursday. They can tell themselves they should have won Game 3, but injury is just one of the risks of not finishing the job when you have the chance. The main risk is the one Milwaukee knows all too well, having let a potential 3-0 lead slip away in the conference finals two years ago in Toronto: Once you give a team a bit of life, it can emerge stronger, sharper and much more dangerous than it was before.