For the second time in three days, the Milwaukee Bucks have defeated the Brooklyn Nets, and Tuesday's game took much the same path that Sunday's did. The two teams traded leads for the first three quarters before Milwaukee took over and finished Brooklyn off in the fourth quarter. Yet again, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant excelled with 36 and 32 points, respectively, but Kyrie Irving outpaced them both with 38 of his own.
Yet Milwaukee managed to walk away with the victory thanks to a balanced offensive effort. Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton poured in 23 points apiece, and strong nights from Donte DiVincenzo and Bryn Forbes pushed the Bucks over the top. The two teams have now played all three of their scheduled regular-season matchups, but are on a collision course for a second-round rematch, and that is one of three takeaways from Tuesday's battle.
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1. Standings shakeup
A week ago, Milwaukee appeared to be Brooklyn's last obstacle to home-court advantage. Now? The Nets are in danger of falling to No. 3 in the Eastern Conference. Milwaukee's two wins earned it the tiebreaker over Brooklyn. Toss in a Friday loss to Portland and Brooklyn now has 23 on the season, only one more than the Bucks. While their four final games are a cakewalk (Bulls, Spurs, Bulls and Cavaliers), their next two will come against Denver and Dallas. Both are possible losses, and once the Nets lose a game, the Bucks control their own destiny for the No. 2 seed. Both the Nets and Bucks have strong road records, but 80 percent of Game 7 matchups are won by the home team. Milwaukee has an easy schedule of its own to look forward to, and if it goes all out for the rest of the season, it has a genuine chance of supplanting Brooklyn as No. 2 in the East.
The real winner of Milwaukee's sweep of Brooklyn, though, is No. 1 seeded Philadelphia. The 76ers have seven games to play, and they're easy ones: they play the Rockets, Pelicans, Pistons, Pacers, Heat, Magic and Magic again to close the season. With only 21 losses, they'd have to lose three of those seven to lose homecourt advantage. The odds of that happening are low, and if the 76ers take care of business quickly enough they, could even sneak in some rest for Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons before the postseason. That's a luxury neither Brooklyn nor Milwaukee can afford if they care about seeding.
2. Battle of the boards
Nobody is going to win a shootout with Brooklyn. Even without James Harden, they just have too much firepower to beat behind the arc. The Nets have beaten the Bucks once this season, and unsurprisingly, that victory came inside. In that January win, the Nets outscored the Bucks 52-50 in the paint and outrebounded them 55-49. Milwaukee corrected the paint disparity on Sunday, but still lost the rebounding battle, 53-45. If the Bucks expect to beat the Nets in a seven-game series, that can't happen. The Bucks have the NBA's fourth-best rebounding rate. The Nets rank 13th, but given their personnel, should be worse in a postseason setting with more intense scouting. This is going to be one of the most important battlegrounds of this playoff matchup. The Bucks can't match Brooklyn's shooting, but they can extend their own possessions and end Brooklyn's.
They did just on Tuesday with a 55-39 win on the boards that included 15 offensive rebounds. Donte DiVincenzo alone came away with six of them, as many as Brooklyn's entire roster, and he should have plenty of opportunities to replicate that in the postseason. Aggressive switching defenses are hardly known for their rebounding, and if their communication is off, they become susceptible to smart players weaving through traffic and taking advantage of their bigger teammates boxing out.
The question Milwaukee needs to answer on this front is how much it values the glass. The Bucks played only eight minutes on Tuesday without either Brook Lopez or Bobby Portis on the floor. Those small-ball lineups are extra switchable and maximize Milwaukee's shooting, but will hurt on the glass. The Bucks now have three games of tape to study. Do they want to try to compete with the Nets at their own game, or beat them up the old-fashioned way? The realistic answer is a bit of both. That was the case in this win.
3. To shoot, or not to shoot?
Entering this game, Antetokounmpo had never attempted more than eight 3-pointers in an NBA contest. That is a career-high he tied on Sunday. He took six 3-pointers in the January game. On Tuesday? He took 12. Yes, foul trouble contributed to that number, but this is not an isolated incident. Giannis is averaging 8.67 3-point attempts per game against the Nets this season. That would rank ninth over the full season. He is taking more 3-pointers against the Nets than Duncan Robinson is in an average game. Brooklyn has aggressively sagged off of Giannis, largely defending him with centers that don't leave the paint. They're begging him to shoot. He's obliging, and it's working for the Bucks. He's made over 38 percent of his attempts against Brooklyn, a very valuable half-court proposition.
But is this sustainable? Giannis is making only 31.3 percent of his wide-open 3-pointers this season. That is roughly in line with where he was last season, and there's little compelling evidence suggesting that he's made meaningful improvement within the season. It's far likelier that these Nets games have been outliers for Giannis as a shooter, and that's dangerous for Milwaukee.
Even with Antetokounmpo shooting the lights out, Brooklyn outshot Milwaukee substantially across their three regular-season games, making over 42 percent of its 3-pointers without ever having all three of its stars on the floor at once. The Bucks have shot around 35.7 percent, unsustainably low compared to their season-long figure, but a number that makes sense in the context of Antetokounmpo's playing style against the Nets. Milwaukee relies on his aggression to draw defenders into the paint and away from its own shooters. Brooklyn's switch-first scheme prioritizes defending the 3-point line, and even if Antetokounmpo kills them in the paint, that's an outcome they'll live with if they win the 3-point battle.
The onus is on Giannis to bend Brooklyn's defense, and there's basic math to this. The Bucks, on average, score 101.4 points per play in the half-court. A 38 percent 3-point shooter generates 1.14 points per possession, well above that figure, so if Antetokounmpo maintained the shooting he's shown against the Nets in the playoffs, the Bucks will gladly let him take as many 3-pointers as he'd like. If he's the 31 percent shooter we should expect him to be, that figure falls to .93 points per possession, well below what the Bucks typically expect in the half-court, and that's before you factor in inferior shooting numbers for teammates. In other words: it's no surprise the Bucks have fared well with Giannis as a jump-shooter against the Nets because he's shot well above his head. If he regresses to the mean, they're going to have to find ways to turn those jump shots into layups.