After Kevin Durant’s epic 49-point poem in Game 5, it always felt like a free kick for the Brooklyn Nets. They had two opportunities to send the Milwaukee Bucks home. Now they have one.
From the start, the Nets were sloppy in possession and made four turnovers in the same number of minutes. Three of them were the fault of James Harden, who, except for a brief explosion in the second quarter, looked like he was playing with just one functioning hamstring.
Jrue Holiday started with a midrange pull-up early, then a three as Steve Nash called his first timeout midway through the first quarter. His response was revealing: the ball was quickly moved into Durant’s hands on the block in back-to-back possessions, Khris Middleton in his jersey. You don’t need me to tell you how these two possessions ended.
Durant’s effortless jumper and ugly spinning move around Middleton for a dunk was followed by a three-point shot from Blake Griffin to cap a 7-0 run. As far as, however, Harden stripped Giannis Antetokounmpo with his jewelry thief hands, but rather than roaring down for a layup, he simply came to a halt in his tracks. He was not the player we are used to seeing.
Milwaukee finished first 26-19 at best, with Jeff Green being served on a plate with fries whenever he tried to stay ahead of Giannis, at his best throughout. Even if he treated his free throws with all the urgency of a glacier.
With just under eight minutes left in the second, Durant took his first minutes of rest after five straight playoff basketball quarters.
In doing so, Harden briefly returned to his superstar car for 11 quick points. He could only go at one speed and looked a lot like an old firecracker going up the hill first, but that didn’t stop “The Beard” from moving in the lane for the floats or backing up for those three pointers who lip lick, the exact regimen of shots he thrived on for all those years in Houston.
A three-point dam from Middleton finished second, bringing him to 17 points in that single quarter and the Bucks to a 59-48 halftime lead. Meanwhile, Giannis had 19 points on nine shots (89%) and his first half of the playoffs without attempting a three.
The omens were good. Getting the double MVP as far from the arc and as close to the basket as possible is as easy a formula for success as it gets in this world.
The second half continued in much the same pattern, with Milwaukee denying Durant the ball on every possible opportunity and pressuring Harden as he crossed halfway. The rest of Brooklyn’s starters – Griffin, Harris and Green – could do nothing but move half-heartedly around their offensive sets in response.
While Mike Budenholzer’s team could happily change every pick, Brooklyn couldn’t afford it, with Giannis pushing his way to the basket and Middleton hitting clutch buckets from the midrange and perimeter.
It was obvious this game would only be close if Durant became a complete supernova and he seemed happy to oblige, going 6-8 on field goals for 12 points in the third, including 10 consecutive for his side. Maybe that doesn’t sound like much considering his avalanche in Game 5, but every bucket was as hard as it gets.
The Bucks were doing everything to stop him and only him and himself, he still scored 32 points with every arm and hand in the arena in his face.
Durant has now scored 25 points in 10 of the Brooklyn Nets’ last 11 playoff games. In the other game, he had 24.
The problem for Nash was that at the other end there was Middleton, calmly responding to every surge in the Nets’ life with his own assault.
They closed to five points before he closed the door in the third quarter with three consecutive field goals, including one on the buzzer to bring him to 27 points before the last period.
Things fell apart for New Yorkers in the fourth. Durant opened it with a three air balloon and a turnover as Milwaukee went into a 10-0 run. You felt the game was pulling away quickly for the Nets, but Holiday’s three continuous and misguided setbacks seemed to offer them a lifeline, with the Bucks’ third star having a horrific 1-10 depth for the game.
At that moment, as if seeing his own reflection in the mirror, Joe Harris rocked his ongoing cold snap to head for the basket and nail his own long-awaited three-point pointer to shoot Brooklyn within five. Just as Milwaukee had played, they were here on the home stretch, barely holding a team miles away from their best basketball.
For a second you sensed the unthinkable was about to happen to them in a home win or game.
Luckily for Cream City, it was as tense as things had gotten. Harris immediately fouled Middleton as he shot from the distance to give the man who couldn’t miss three attempts from the line. Sensing it would be the last nail in the coffin, and knowing a thing or two about the dark arts of the toss and referee deception, Harden begged his head coach to challenge.
Nash requested a time out to think it over, in which Harris admitted his guilt. The swingman is in more than one way. Now 5-24 from the bottom in the last four games, the regular season’s top sniper has completely lost his sight at the worst possible time.
Middleton hit every hit and the Bucks were up eight with eight to go. Less than a minute later, their lead was 15. The Harris gave in and the Harris picked up.
In the end, the Bucks capped an emphatic 14-0 run to seal things with a typically thunderous offensive board from Giannis and dunk on the hapless Green, who was coming out of a career-high 27-point playoff high in match 5 but anonymously this free time.
It was a fitting final, reserved by Milwaukee’s two driving forces this series.
Giannis finished with 30 points and 17 monstrous rebounds. Middleton had 38, 10 and five with 69% shots from the ground. The Bucks took a 104-89 victory with their reserves the rest of the way.
In that last six shallow minutes, Durant and Harden finally rested. They had followed gargantuan efforts in Game 5 with another 40 minutes apiece. They’ll have to breathe deeply by Saturday night as Game 7 awaits them.