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The Bucks only narrowly avoided disaster Thursday night, clinching an 86-83 win against the Nets in a must-have Game 3, putting their second-round series deficit at 2-1 instead of a dreaded 3- 0. Milwaukee is certainly alive thanks to the win, and Brooklyn remains in a somewhat precarious position with James Harden’s hamstring injury. Still, the Bucks made some puzzling decisions in Thursday’s pivotal game, and perhaps if it weren’t for a very unfortunate attempt by Bruce Brown to be the hero in the last game, today’s conversation could have been incredibly different.
Neither team played much offense in Game 3, with both teams shooting below 40% from the floor. The three-point shot seemed from another era, as the Bucks and Nets set to make 14 shots from beyond the arc. (Brooklyn averaged 14.5 a single night ago during the regular season.) During the playoffs, almost every night you can put your hands up and play the shooter game, essentially scoring wins and losses to the team that actually made the wide shots they generated. . What you want to see at least is a consistent process to create a good look. And yet, with their season realistically at stake in Game 3 – no team has overcome a 3-0 deficit in the NBA – the Bucks were making confusing concessions on both ends of the floor.
First of all, Giannis Antetokounmpo can’t shoot eight 3-pointers in one game. That is negligence. Antetokounmpo is obviously one of the most talented players in the league, but every time he shoots a three, he bails out the defense to a comical degree. Giannis hit one of his eight 3-pointers Thursday, and each of them was gifted to shoot wide for the Brooklyn defense. Antetokounmpo was 13-23 on two-point field goal and apparently should be dominating the paint against a regular Nets defense. If a couple of last-minute possessions had gone the other way Thursday night, Giannis’ offensive decision-making would be the number one topic of discussion on how Milwaukee blew a 19-point lead in its biggest game of the season. .
It’s no exaggeration to say Antetokounmpo should steal some of the offensive repertoire from Brown, who was tremendously effective as a blocker in Game 3 and has been for most of the season. Brown essentially plays like a great, setting up picks for the Brooklyn stars and then going for the hoop. It’s what Giannis, a real great, should be doing for Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday on a regular basis. According to game type stats from NBA.com, Antetokounmpo is finishing possessions like the man who rolls pick-and-rolls only 7% of the time in the playoffs, even though he’s scoring a whopping 1.21 points for possession when he does. Milwaukee could get away with it in the first round against a beaten Heat team, but the Bucks can’t afford to waste any chance to score against the Nets.
Down the stretch of Thursday’s game, Giannis looked lost offensively. Every time he stops beyond the arc or hits the ball on top of the key while the defense loads the paint, Antetokounmpo rescues the Nets. Maybe he didn’t want to play inside because of the risk of being fouled and sent to the line, where he’s shooting especially poorly this postseason. Maybe the sheer number of minutes he played caught him a little bit. It’s really cool that Antetokoumnpo wants to go out and shoot at a high-risk time. But those shots need to be good, and both Giannis and Mike Budenholzer need to figure out how to make sure Antetokounmpo gets advantageous looks at times of high leverage.
On the other side of the ball, Milwaukee barely survived thanks in large part to a bad night from Durant. Again, you can look up and down the infield score and pick the players who missed their season averages in shooting percentage for both teams. But Durant’s strategy remains particularly puzzling.
KD missed seven chin-two in Thursday’s game, shots that are his bread and butter. Durant shot 50.6% on middle-range jump shots during the regular season, and he’s one of the few players in the game who should be taking that shot regularly because of his efficiency. Milwaukee, thanks to their knockdown coverage, continues to give Durant those kinds of shots, and it’s an incredibly bold gamble.
In Budenholzer’s defense, uh, it’s not easy at all. Brook Lopez has been the rim protector of a great defense. He deterred Brown at the rim late in the quarter to preserve the victory on Thursday. And the Bucks’ small ball options aren’t perfect, particularly after Donte DiVencenzo’s injury. Still, Lopez needs to play a little higher on screens and rolls, something he finally started doing a little later in Game 3 (as my colleague Michael Pina also pointed out in his instant reaction).
Not only did Lopez’s typical knockdown coverage allow Brown to hit float after float in the paint in Game 3 (Brown finished with 16 points), but Brook also basically challenged Durant on some of his two pull-ups, and while that is better than KD getting in the paint, still not a good person to dare to shoot! Obviously, Milwaukee will have to give up something to the Nets offense, because keeping Durant in check is easier said than done, and that’s before you also have to try to control Kyrie Irving and Joe Harris (who also he shot badly in Game 3). The problem with Giannis’s 3s and Lopez’s downfall is that it feels like the Bucks have the staff to be a little more aggressive in the way they deal with the Nets. Brooklyn was scoring at an absurd rate in the first two games, and Harden had played only a small fraction of the series. At no point did the Bucks appear to have dictated the terms of the engagement.
Ultimately, Milwaukee is still very much in this series and deserves credit for pulling off a Game 3 win. But following Thursday’s script again would present serious risks down the road. Certainly there are no easy paths to victory against this Nets team. Even with Thursday’s result, it’s hard not to wonder if the Bucks picked the right one.
More coverage of the NBA playoffs:
• Trae Young and the art of drawing faults
• Monte Morris is the unsung hero of the Nuggets
• What is the best possible matchup in the NBA Finals?
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.