MILWAUKEE — Thanks to the star-studded presence of the Nets’ Big 3 of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden, they began the playoffs as the consensus favorites to win the NBA title. But their season has been defined by their extensive injury report. Why should the playoffs be any different?
After losing Harden 43 seconds into Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals with a hamstring injury, they lost Irving with 5:52 left in second quarter of Game 4. With their offensive firepower severely compromised, the Nets suffered a 107-96 loss to the Bucks, who evened the series at 2-2 Sunday afternoon at Fiserv Forum.
Game 5 is Tuesday at Barclays Center, and the series is assured to return to Milwaukee for Game 6 on Thursday.
"On Ky, the X-rays were negative, but we will have to see how it goes tomorrow for further tests and treatment," Nets coach Steve Nash said. "Obviously, we lost a great player during the game, which was tough.
"We struggled in the second half, so we missed him obviously. It was a big adjustment to play without him and James, but we’ve had that type of year. So we have to find a way to figure it out, look at the tape and get better."
The Nets trailed by as much as 19 points in the fourth quarter before Nash pulled his starters. Without Irving in the lineup, the Nets spent the rest of the game playing through Durant as a point forward. He led them with 28 hard-earned points on 9-of-25 shooting, including a 1-for-8 performance from three-point range, and added 13 rebounds. It was telling the only other Net in double figures was Irving, who had 11 points in his 17 minutes.
"It is tricky with Kevin," Nash said of the Nets’ reliance on their remaining superstar. "We’ve all got to play together, we have to move the ball. When we go to Kevin every time, it puts a little bit too much pressure on him and makes us a little predictable…Of course, we are looking for Kevin as much as we can, but within reason and without confining ourselves and being predictable."
Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Bucks with 34 points on 14-of-26 shooting, Khris Middleton added 19, and they outscored the Nets 20-6 on fast-break points and 34-21 on bench points.
The Nets put together a 13-0 run spanning the end of the first quarter into the second to take a 34-23 lead as the Bucks missed five shots and committed six turnovers in that span. Just as they suddenly went cold, the Bucks heated up in a hurry to reel off a 21-4 run that included back-to-back threes by Tucker and another six points by Antetokounmpo to gain a 44-38 lead.
That’s when Irving stopped the momentum with a tough layup with 5:52 remaining in the second quarter, but he crash landed, remained on the floor, clutched his right ankle and rolled over in obvious pain. The Nets called timeout and Irving received medical attention and was helped to his feet and limped to the locker room.
"It’s always deflating when one of our guys go down, but like we always have been through this year, it’s next man up," said Jeff Green, who returned from a plantar fascia strain after missing six games and scored eight points and grabbed five rebounds in nearly 27 minutes.
"They went on a run, and we just didn’t bounce back. There’s no excuses. I’m just glad this is a sprain and nothing more, and hopefully, he can heal up in the next 48 [hours]."
The first half ended with the Bucks holding a 53-48 lead, knowing they could focus their defensive attention on Durant in the second half. They started the third quarter in aggressive fashion with a 13-2 run that included seven points from Antetokounmpo and pushed their lead to 66-50. They later led by as much as 17 but settled for an 81-69 lead at the end of a quarter in which Durant scored 16 of the Nets’ 21 points.
Asked to describe his postgame message to the Nets, Nash said, "Keep our heads up. Now it’s a three-game series . . . stay positive. We’ve had an adverse season, we remained positive, and that’s what got us through. We have to have that same mentality here and find a way to solve some puzzles and persevere."