The Eastern Conference Semifinals has a Conference Finals feel to it. You have the back-to-back defending MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo with the Bucks and two former MVPs in Kevin Durant and James Harden for the Nets. Both teams have massive chips on their shoulder in getting to the NBA Finals, so there will be high stakes on the line.
The Nets are coming off a 4-1 series win over the Boston Celtics, while the Bucks swept the Miami Heat. This series has seven-game potential, so let’s get down to what we have to look forward to watching.
The Nets Big Three vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo
The combination of Kyrie Irving, James Harden, and Kevin Durant is going to be a daunting task. Durant is a two-time Finals MVP and owns a regular-season MVP. Harden is a three-time scoring champion, while Irving owns a championship ring with the Cavaliers. With that said, all three have a chip on their shoulders in wanting to prove they can win a championship with a different market.
Giannis can understand that. He wants to be the next Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was the last superstar to land a championship in Milwaukee in 1971. Giannis got the best of the Nets in their last meeting with 36 points and 12 rebounds. Two days before that, he erupted for 49 points.
We haven’t even talked about former All-Stars Khris Middleton, nor Jrue Holiday. On paper, the superstar’s talent is enormous.
Along with Irving, Harden, and Durant, the Nets can use Blake Griffin and Joe Harris Griffin has struggled from the floor, scoring just 24 points in total in five games against the Celtics. Part of that is that Griffin must play the center position, which is not his normal position of power forward.
Joe Harris fills out the rest of the starting lineup. The 2021 leader in three-point field goal percentage had his best game in Game 2 with 25 points on 7-of-10 shooting from three-point range. Harris scored in double-figures in four of the five games altogether.
Along with Giannis, Middleton, and Holiday, the Bucks have Brook Lopez and Pat Connaughton. Lopez scored 25 points in Game 4, while Connaughton got the late start. Donte DiVincenzo is out the rest of the season with an injury, which opens up the opportunity for either Connaughton or Bryn Forbes.
Regardless, it’s hard to go against a starting lineup that features two former MVPs and three combined championship rings. The Nets have the superior starting lineup on paper despite losing to the Bucks two times in the regular season.
Nets Bench: Jeff Green, DeAndre Jordan, Bruce Brown, Landry Shamet, Nicolas Claxton, Tyler Johnson, Chris Chiozza, Mike James, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot
Bucks Bench: Bryn Forbes, P.J. Tucker, Bobby Portis, Jeff Teague, Elijah Bryant, Mamadi Diakite, Justin Jackson, Sam Merrill, Axel Toupane
The Nets are dealing with injuries to Jeff Green and DeAndre Jordan, so their availability is up in the air. Brown has been the most consistent player off the bench having started in place of both Irving and Harden during stretches of the season.
Nicolas Claxton has also been an up-and-coming contributor at the center position. Both Landry Shamet and Tyler Johnson played in 20 minutes in Game 5 and could see an increased role given Green and Jordan are out.
The Bucks have more depth, which should be concerning for the Nets. For starters, Tucker can guard just about any player on the floor, specifically inside. Bobby Portis shot 47.1% from three-point range, and he will stretch out the floor. Jeff Teague is a seasoned veteran that can provide minutes, while Forbes has 15-points per the game potential.
In comparison, the Bucks have more to offer with the second unit. The Nets starting lineup might have to play close to 40 minutes a night because of the Bucks second unit’s defensive presence. It will be interesting to see how the team can keep the Nets star players fresh.
Coach: Steve Nash vs. Mike Budenholzer
We should respect what Nash has done this season. Nash corralled a disgruntled Kyrie Irving back and had him playing like a top-2 guard in the league. He helped keep James Harden happy when he was traded to the team. He has managed injuries to Irving, Harden, Durant, Jordan, and now Green all season long.
Even with all this adversity, the Nets are favored to win this series. The Nets remain a dangerous team and a lot of that has to do with their first-year coach.
Budenholzer gets the edge here and this is why. We should respect the man who has won a Coach of the Year Award with two different franchises for starters. Next, Budenholzer knows what it is like to win in big-game situations. When the Hawks were the No. 1 seed in 2015, the Cavaliers swept Atlanta as the team was not ready.
The Bucks have lost a Conference Finals and a Conference Semifinals in the last two years. This team has experienced loss and knows how to adjust. This is going to be the time that Budenholzer changes the narrative for Milwaukee.
Nets Strengths: The Best Offense Ever
This is going to be one of the best offensive showdowns we have seen in a while. The Bucks and Nets rank No. 1 and No. 2 in points per game. The Nets led the league in field goal percentage (49.1%) and were second in three-point field goal percentage (39.2%). We know that Irving, Harden, and Durant can knock down any shot on any given spot on the floor.
The Nets have the idea that they can outscore any team they play with defense playing secondary. Assuming that the Nets can score close to 120-130 points each night, they will have a chance. However, this is a middle-tier rebounding team (14th in the league), so their first shot will have to count.
Bucks Strengths: Defense And Depth
As mentioned, the Bucks own the highest-rated offense in the league in points per game. The Bucks are third in field goal percentage (48.7%), and fifth in three-point field goal percentage (38.9%). On top of that, the Bucks are the second-best rebounding team in the league.
If the Bucks can limit Brooklyn’s transition opportunities, they will have a better chance to keep the team on their toes on the defensive end. In the halfcourt, between Giannis, Middleton, Holiday, and Tucker, this can be a formidable defensive unit. If Milwaukee turns this into a track meet, Brooklyn will capitalize on those turnovers.
Who Will Win?
The easy answer is that the Nets will rely on Irving, Harden, and Durant to carry them, but there are just too many red flags. For starters, the Nets are going to hurt if Jeff Green doesn’t return. DeAndre Jordan hasn’t played in a game since May 5. The depth off the bench is significantly lacking.
You can’t play 40 minutes a night in a seven-game series and come out on top, at least not this Nets team. Healthy players could, but Durant has played only about half the season, while Irving and Harden have battled their injuries.
The Bucks have legitimate pieces off the bench and own a 2-0 record against the Nets with Harden on the roster. The Bucks haven’t given us a reason to believe they will lose now. The Bucks will win this series in six games.
Prediction: Brooklyn Nets vs. Milwaukee Bucks 2-4