We're less than a month into the season, yet with a rare degree of certainty, we can say that we've already seen the game of the year. The Brooklyn Nets hosted the Milwaukee Bucks in a heavyweight showdown on Monday, and in a game that was close throughout, the Nets walked away with a thrilling 125-123 win after Khris Middleton missed a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Kyrie Irving may have missed the festivities, but the stars that were available put on a show. Brooklyn's Kevin Durant-James Harden tandem gave the Nets 64 points, 18 assists and 15 rebounds, while Milwaukee's three-headed monster of Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday gave the Bucks 81 points of their own. In the end, the role players were the difference. Beating the Nets when they get 34 points out of Joe Harris and Jeff Green is almost impossible, and sure enough, the Bucks came up just short.
This was the first time we've seen these two juggernauts go head to head, but it won't be the last. Aside from a couple more regular-season dates on the schedule, these two are the heavy favorites to reach the Eastern Conference finals and duke it out for a shot at the championship. Here are four things you should take away from tonight's thriller ahead of that possible playoff matchup.
1. Milwaukee couldn't exploit Brooklyn's weaknesses
The Nets might have the most perimeter talent of any team in NBA history, but the price for securing it was depth everywhere else. Jeff Green is making the minimum, but he started at power forward tonight. DeAndre Jordan has been a negative-value player so far this season and even got himself benched prior to Jarrett Allen's exit in the Harden deal, but he's the only legitimate NBA center on the roster.
That gave the Bucks a fairly simple blueprint to beating the Nets: kill them inside. Milwaukee was the NBA's best-rebounding team by a mile last season. They allowed the fewest shot attempts in the restricted area and produced a repeat MVP-winner that was shooting over 82 percent from within three feet of the basket so far this season. Brooklyn is going to win the battle behind the arc most nights. Milwaukee could've punted it away with proper interior dominance.
Yet the Nets outrebounded the Bucks, 49 to 41. They scored more points in the paint as well, 52 to 50. If that carries over into the postseason, it's over. The Nets are going to the Finals. Their shooting and shot-creation are too good for them to lose when they're winning inside as well.
Give credit where it's due. Jordan, who has struggled for most of the season, gave the Nets 38 great minutes on Monday. Brooklyn won those minutes by five points, and he tied Antetokounmpo for the game lead with 12 rebounds. More to the point, he proved to be a real deterrent for Giannis as a driver, forcing him to take six 3-pointers and several mid-range jumpers. It makes sense. The common strategy against Giannis is to build a wall of defenders at the rim. Well, Jordan has very limited mobility at this point in his career. Certain big men, like Anthony Davis, will eat him alive. But given his size and sturdiness, he's practically a human wall, and that made life very difficult for Giannis and the Bucks in this game.
2. The Bucks finally found some clutch offense
Milwaukee should be encouraged on a few fronts, but none more so than their clutch offense. Entering tonight, the Bucks were ranked 12th in clutch scoring per 100 possessions. They were 11th last season and eighth the year before that, and in both cases, they collapsed in the postseason when Giannis couldn't create shots. But in the last five minutes of this game? They scored 13 points.
Now, some of those points were fluky. Two of them, for instance, came off of Durant assuming a ball was going out of bounds rather than actively rebounding. The core problem of Giannis being an insufficient late-game creator still exists.
But Middleton's continued improvement along with Holiday's presence as a secondary creator gives Milwaukee enough alternatives to credibly find points. Having two supplementary stars of their quality makes it easier to find off-ball uses for Giannis, such as screening in the pick-and-roll. The Bucks aren't going to have an elite late-game offense, but they proved tonight that they can get points against the team they actually need to beat to reach the Finals.
Their real offensive issues came from the bench, which shot 7-of-23 from the field and scored only 19 points. The Bucks sorely need another creator for when one or more of their stars are on the bench. It doesn't have to be a star, but someone in the Lou Williams-Derrick Rose class of "older point guard that can score 20 on a random night" would be very, very helpful. They signed D.J. Augustin thinking he could be that player. In a game of this magnitude, it seems that he couldn't be.
3. Mike Budenholzer continues making the same mistake
Milwaukee lost to Miami in the playoffs for a whole host of reasons, but Mike Budenholzer's dogmatic commitment to his same old defensive scheme was a big one. He stuck with drop-coverage all year and Miami's shooters destroyed it. He refused to increase the workload of his best players and his bench couldn't compensate. But most damningly, he refused to let his Defensive Player of the Year guard Miami's closer. Jimmy Butler killed the Bucks in fourth quarters while Giannis watched helplessly from his spot as a weakside shot-blocker.
Give Budenholzer some credit: at least he appreciated the magnitude of the moment. Giannis played 40 minutes against the Nets, the first time he's done so in any non-overtime regular-season game under Budenholzer. But yet again, his coach refused to unleash him on the opponent's best player. Giannis wasn't guarding Durant when it counted, and sure enough, Durant nailed the game-winning dagger with 36 seconds left. Antetokounmmpo was on Jeff Green in the corner.
Durant was guarded by Middleton and Holiday for most of the game. Middleton is a good defender and Holiday is a great one, but neither have sufficient size to contend with a seven-foot marksman like Durant. Antetokounmpo and his 7-4 wingspan do. The charitable read on the situation is that Budenholzer is saving that weapon in his back pocket for a playoff rematch, but after the Miami series last season, that's pretty hard to believe. Could Giannis have altered Durant's dagger enough to give the Bucks the game? We'll never know, but for Milwaukee's sake, hopefully, Budenholzer doesn't repeat the error when it counts.
Fortunately for the Bucks, he might not have a choice. Irving's return makes the Nets even more dangerous offensively, but it also realigns the matchups in a way that might force Budenholzer to stick Giannis on Durant. Who else is he going to guard? He can't chase Joe Harris around screens all night. Their two star guards are too small for him to credibly defend for a whole night. If he's defending Brooklyn's center, what is Brook Lopez doing? We might just see this matchup yet.
4. Not much is going to sustain from this game
This might seem counterproductive in a story meant to detail takeaways from tonight's game... but taking much away from this single matchup would likely be ill-advised. Irving's absence obviously makes an enormous difference, but really, variance is why this game means so little in the grand scheme of things.
On Brooklyn's end, the Nets lost the turnover battle 17-5. That's fairly explainable. Harden is still adjusting to new teammates. Jordan, fairly susceptible to strips, played more minutes than ever and coughed the ball up five times himself. They were missing their starting point guard. Milwaukee should win the turnover battle in this series, but not by nearly this much.
Where the Bucks can rest easy is knowing that Brooklyn may never outshoot them this badly again. The Nets hit 15 of their 31 3-pointers, good for over 48 percent. The Bucks went 11-of-37 for around 29 percent. Entering Monday, the Bucks were making 41.1 percent of their 3-pointers. That wasn't sustainable, but no team should ever expect to lose an entire series thanks to an 18 percent margin in 3-point shooting. The Nets are a better shooting team than the Bucks, but not by this much.
How much will this regression matter on each side? Well, we don't know. The truth is that luck tends to play a much bigger role in the postseason than anyone wants to admit. The Bucks might get hot and hit half of their 3-pointers across four games and sweep the Nets. They might hit a cold streak as they did against Miami last season and get swept themselves. Both teams have moves to make at the deadline and in the buyout market despite their limited resources.
That makes Monday more of an opening salvo. The Nets took Round 1. Round 2 hasn't been scheduled yet, but will come later in the season. And then the big ones will come in June. The Nets should be favored after their victory tonight, but a lot can change between now and then. The Eastern Conference is still very much up for grabs.