As they licked their wounds from a humiliating Game 2 loss, the Bucks appeared to reach the obvious conclusion: There’s no way to outshoot or out-pretty Durant’s Nets. The only path to victory against the East favorites involved increased defensive intensity, energy plays and, frankly, ugly basketball. The Bucks delivered on all counts Thursday, holding the Nets to a season-low in scoring and claiming an 86-83 win that cut their deficit to 2-1 in the best-of-seven second-round series.
“Part of it was playing desperate and knowing the situation and knowing what this game means to us,” Bucks guard Jrue Holiday said. “Part of it was the performance we had in the first two games, that was out of character. … If we’ve got to muck up the game, we’ve got to muck it up.”
Brooklyn’s advantages in top-end talent and depth produced a laughable Game 2 blowout, which saw the Nets build a 49-point lead and deal the Bucks their second-worst playoff loss in franchise history. The nature of the defeat raised the stakes for Milwaukee, which endured disappointing endings in each of the past two postseasons.
With those ghosts looming, Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer entered the postseason with more pressure than any of his colleagues and would have a difficult time explaining away a lopsided result in a series that could be viewed as the de facto NBA Finals.
Milwaukee, which entered the second round with the top-ranked playoff defense, opened Game 3 like it was seeking atonement, with Giannis Antetokounmpo scoring 15 points in the first quarter on an array of rim attacks to help build early leads of 9-0 and 30-9.
Yet Milwaukee’s offensive rhythm proved fleeting, and Brooklyn slowly started to chip away. Nets Coach Steve Nash predicted just such an early rush, telling reporters before the game that he expected the Bucks to “throw everything at us.” But, Nash added, “that doesn’t mean we have to sit back and take it.”
For a quarter, the Nets did exactly that, missing their first seven shots and easing their way into a contest played in front of a Milwaukee crowd that was at full capacity for the first time during this pandemic season. Brooklyn’s scoring machine finally got into motion in the second period, taking off on a 17-2 run thanks to Bruce Brown, a 6-foot-4 guard who often functions as a center on offense.
Brown bedeviled Milwaukee’s big lineups, repeatedly diving into the center of the paint on pick-and-rolls to hit four shots over the top of 7-footer Brook Lopez. By the end of the third quarter, the Nets had erased their entire 21-point first-half deficit.
“I like how we clawed back into the game, but I hate that we started out that way,” Durant said.
Budenholzer responded to the dire circumstances and momentum swing by extending the minutes of Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, a rare move for a coach who typically likes to keep his stars as fresh as possible. Perhaps fatigue contributed to the choppy nature of the contest, but Milwaukee’s stars had enough left when it mattered.
Antetokounmpo, who finished with 33 points and 14 rebounds, missed his first seven three-point attempts before bringing the crowd to its feet when he hit one in the fourth quarter. Middleton, who led all scorers with 35 points and added 15 rebounds, outdueled Durant by scoring eight points in the final three minutes to deliver the win. Holiday, who shot just 4-for-14 from the field, slithered to the hoop for a go-ahead layup with 11.4 seconds on the clock.
“It was a very low-scoring game, possession by possession,” Antetokounmpo said. “You had to get stops to win this game. You had to knock down big shots to win this game. … If we can win a game by scoring 86, I’ll take it any night.”
After proving unable to slow, let alone stop, Brooklyn’s attack earlier in the series, Milwaukee made several impressive stands in the second half. Thanasis Antetokounmpo jumped around the court to celebrate a defensive possession that included two blocks and a deflected pass, and Lopez did a much better job of contesting Brown’s shots in the closing minutes. Aggressive team defense prevented Durant, who finished with a team-high 30 points, 11 rebounds and 5 assists, from getting shots off on two late possessions and forced him into a tough fallaway three-pointer that rimmed off at the buzzer.
“There was a lot of good competitive stuff [on defense],” Budenholzer said. “Guys getting through screens. Brook, particularly in the second half, protecting the rim and getting blocked shots. As a group, we found enough ways to get stops.”
For the Bucks, it was a season-saving and identity-restoring victory.
“Your character is tested in the playoffs,” Budenholzer said. “This group has high character and we responded.”