It comes down to this. The Nets were facing the Bucks in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on their homecourt Saturday night at Barclays Center. That basic scenario was ideal, but it was complicated by the fact Kyrie Irving was out with an ankle sprain and James Harden played the past two games with right hamstring tightness that limited his physical ability and explosiveness.
Only Kevin Durant of the Nets’ three superstars was healthy. And he has been off the charts. He lifted them to a Game 5 win with an unbelievable 49-point triple-double that included 17 rebounds and 10 assists, and he followed up with a 32-point effort in a Game 6 loss in Milwaukee that included 11 rebounds.
Was it possible that a healthy Durant could put the Nets on his back and take them to the Eastern Conference finals against the winner of Sunday’s Game 7 between the Hawks and 76ers?
"I believe you guys have seen throughout his career what he’s capable of and what he’s done just throughout his career," veteran forward Jeff Green said of Durant on Saturday morning after shootaround. "You see it for yourself. The guy has been incredible. He’s been carrying us, and I believe tonight won’t be no different. He’s going to go out there, he’s going to play his heart out, put us on his back and lead us to the win."
That was the hope to which the Nets were clinging. But in their Game 6 loss in Milwaukee, they struggled to generate offense. The Bucks outscored them 26-4 in fast-break points. That underlined the immobility of Harden and the Nets’ problems pushing the ball in transition, which meant they had to score out of their half-court offense the majority of the time.
"I think we can make adjustments," Nets coach Steve Nash said. "We were able to do it in Game 5. There are solutions, there are adjustments we can have. Sometimes, it comes down to shotmaking, especially [in Game 6] we had a lot of good looks that didn’t go in and that hurt us.
"We also were very careless with the ball and made errors that led to transition opportunities [for the Bucks] . . . We’re going to solve as many puzzles as we can and we’re also going to try and play our hearts out and enjoy the opportunity as we have done all year. Inside our group, we feel great. We feel excited for the opportunity. We feel a lot of belief and trust to go out there and play in front of our fans in a deciding game."
In fact, the Nets were leaning heavily on their home-court advantage going into Game 7 of a series in which the home teams had won each of the first six games. But there is no doubt the Nets were crippled by injuries compared to the healthy Bucks.
It’s not just that Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo averaged 30.5 points through the first six games. Obviously, the Nets needed to find a way to keep the two-time MVP away from the rim. But that was a near impossibility.
More concerning was the emergence of All-Star Khris Middleton. In the first two games, the Nets held him to 15.0 points per game on 30.2% shooting. Over the past four games, Middleton averaged 29.3 points on 48.7% shooting, including 43.8% percent from three-point range. He added 8.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists.
Without a doubt, Middleton was the deciding factor in the Bucks’ Game 6 win when he scored a career playoff-high of 38 points on 11-for-16 shooting, including a 5-for-8 effort from three-point range and two four-point plays. If the Nets can’t stop him, they can’t win.
"We have to make his shots tough," Green said. "We can’t allow him to get four-point plays, threes. We’ve got to make his shots tough. Be up on him on defense, force him to put the ball on the floor, get into the paint, play collectively on the defensive end."
As expected, Green said the Nets were excited to play a Game 7. "It’s rare that a lot of people get a chance to play in Game 7," Green said. "It’s a great opportunity for us to come together collectively and do something special. So we’re all excited for this opportunity."