Giannis Antetokounmpo scored the Milwaukee Bucks' first points on Thursday the way he'd scored so many before. He rebounded a missed 3, pushed the ball the other way, then hit his defender with a Eurostep just inside the free throw line. The Brooklyn Nets' Jeff Green stuck with him and avoided a foul, but Antetokounmpo's length was too much. Easy layup off the glass.
Milwaukee's next bucket in Game 6 of its second-round series was also scored on the break, in the paint, off the glass, set up by an Antetokounmpo Eurostep, only this time he zipped the ball to PJ Tucker in the corner and Tucker found Brook Lopez darting to the paint. The one after that was an Antetokounmpo layup over Blake Griffin in transition, off a steal.
Less than five minutes into the game, Antetokounmpo finished over Griffin after yet another Eurostep, as James Harden swiped down at the ball and fouled him. This gave the Bucks an 11-2 lead. The Nets spent the rest of the game trying to erase it.
Near the end of the third quarter, it looked like they might. Brooklyn had cut a 14-point deficit to five, and Antetokounmpo had clanked a 16-footer over Griffin at the end of the shot clock. Whatever momentum they might have had, though, was lost when Tucker tracked down the offensive rebound and Khris Middleton calmly converted a jumper. Middleton closed the quarter on a personal 6-0 run, extending the Bucks' lead to 11 with a pull-up 2 and a buzzer-beating layup, both on the break.
"I thought we had some problems getting back in transition," Nets coach Steve Nash said after Milwaukee's 104-89 win. "We didn't create anything in transition. So that was a huge discrepancy that I thought really hurt us tonight. The slow start, the transition points, offensive rebounds, you add it all up, it's tough to win that way."
The Bucks didn't fix all of their offensive issues but tied the series anyway because they got stops, ran and owned the glass. They outscored the Nets 26-4 in fast break points, and before garbage time they used 18.5 percent of their possessions in transition and rebounded 34.1 percent of their misses, per Cleaning The Glass. (In Game 5, Milwaukee scored just two fast break points, used 5.2 percent of its possessions in transition and rebounded 11.9 percent of its misses.)
Middleton scored 38 points -- a career playoff high -- on 11-for-16 shooting, with 10 rebounds, five assists and five steals. He was phenomenal. But both Nash and Kevin Durant lamented that the Nets had needlessly fouled him on 3-point attempts and given up offensive boards that led to clean looks. "You see the ball go in the basket, you get more confidence," Durant said. In the second quarter, Jrue Holiday settled for a stepback 3 in the right corner, and, if Brooklyn had grabbed the rebound, it could have made it a one-possession game on the other end. Instead, Antetokounmpo came away with it and found his co-star wide open on the perimeter:
A couple of minutes later, a Durant-Green pick-and-roll led to an open 3 for Joe Harris on the weak side. Harris, the NBA's most accurate 3-point shooter in the regular season, missed it, and the Bucks were off to the races. The defense collapsed on Antetokounmpo, and there was Middleton, uncovered for a 3, and a lead that could have shrunk to two points swelled to eight.
Milwaukee led the league in transition frequency and was fourth in fast break points this season. "It's always an emphasis," coach Mike Budenholzer said, but they can't run if they don't play excellent defense and rebound. "We just gotta keep our focus on those things."
The Bucks had some ugly, muddled and befuddling half-court possessions in Game 6, and they've had those all series. Holiday took some questionable off-the-dribble 3s, and they shot 7 for 33 (21.2 percent) from deep as a team. They dominated the possession game, though, and took twice as many free throws as the Nets did. They were physical, aggressive and much more energetic.
Perhaps this is what's expected when your season is on the line, against an opponent with one hobbled star out of the lineup and another hobbled star playing like the old guy at the Y. A different team, however, might have crumbled after Tuesday's crushing loss at Barclays Center.
It's unclear if any of this will carry over when Brooklyn should be just as desperate in Game 7 on Saturday. "I think we gave 'em a lot of opportunities," Durant said. "Especially tough shots, turnovers. They thrive off that stuff, so we gotta be better." The Nets were sloppy and a step slow. Nash said they simply didn't have their bounce, musing that maybe a lack of energy prevented them from finding their rhythm and maybe their inability to find a rhythm prevented them from generating energy.
Either way, the Bucks survived. They'll take it.