The Bucks' P.J. Tucker and the Nets' Kevin Durant have...

The Bucks' P.J. Tucker and the Nets' Kevin Durant have words during the second half of Game 3 of the NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals on Thursday in Milwaukee. Credit: AP/Morry Gash

MILWAUKEE – No one predicted a titanic defensive struggle before the Eastern Conference semifinal series between the Nets and Bucks, the two highest-scoring powerhouses in the NBA. But that’s what happened when the Bucks decided to play rough after losing the first two games at Barclays Center.

Ultimately, the outcome came down to an off-balance three-pointer by Kevin Durant to tie the game, but it clanked off the back of the rim as the Bucks pulled out a hard-fought 86-83 victory to cut the Nets’ series lead to 2-1 Thursday night at Fiserv Forum.

"We were pretty solid again," Nets coach Steve Nash said. "That’s three games now where I thought our defensive effort was good. It’s interesting that we lose a game because of our offense, but it was just a tough game. We just couldn’t find a rhythm. A great opportunity for us to learn and grow from this."

After fighting back from a 21-point first-quarter deficit, the Nets took one brief lead late in the third quarter and went back in front again at 70-69 on a midrange jumper by Kyrie Irving with 10:56 left to play. But the cold shooting by both teams continued through a ragged fourth quarter, making for an excruciating stretch run.

After Kevin Durant’s midrange jumper tied the score at 76 with 6:09 left, the Bucks missed their next six shots, and the Nets missed four and committed a turnover. Inside the final three minutes Khris Middleton and Durant exchanged jumpers as the game was tied two more times before Durant’s three-pointer gave the Nets an 83-80 lead with 1:23 left to go.

The Bucks got two stops and took an 84-83 lead on Jrue Holiday’s layup with 11.4 seconds showing. But Blake Griffin’s inbounds pass was knocked away, chased down by Irving, who got it to Brown, who missed a driving attempt at the rim. After a pair of Middleton foul shots, Durant missed an off-balance three at the buzzer.

Game over, series on.

Describing the botched inbounds play with 11 seconds to go, Irving said, "We had an opportunity to execute and failed. The ball ended up in Bruce’s hands, and he had a contested shot at the rim. It’s not on him."

Durant topped the Nets with 30 points and added 11 rebounds but shot 11-for-28. Irving had 22 points, and Brown totaled 16 points and 11 rebounds. The Nets shot 36.2% overall and 25.0% from three (8-32). Joe Harris shot 1-for-11 and totaled only three points.

Middleton led the Bucks with 35 points and 15 rebounds, and Giannis Antetokounmpo had 33 points and 14 rebounds.

Neither team ever led by more than five points in a second half that had emotions high on both sides. After P.J. Tucker got called for fouling Durant in the third quarter, Tucker complained about the call. Durant and Tucker then started jawing at each other, with officials calling a double technical on each player.

As much as they talked about getting the Bucks’ best shot, the Nets were anything but ready for the firestorm that engulfed them. The Bucks blitzed the Nets to build a 30-9 lead just before the end of the opening period with Antetokounmpo and Middleton combining to score every Bucks point – 15 each.

The Nets shot a pathetic 5-of-25 in the first quarter, but Durant’s final shot went in to put them in double figures, and it triggered an extended 22-3 run lasting deep into the second period to cut the Nets’ deficit to 33-31. The Bucks paid little defensive attention to Brown on the short roll, and he made them pay with 10 points in that stretch. The Nets’ defense also turned it up several notches in the second quarter. During the Nets’ run, the Bucks shot 1-for-13 and had four turnovers.

"We started playing together," Brown said of the rally. "I was the one to get the buckets, but we were just playing together. We were playing with pace. We were just trying to screen for each other, and I was just the one scoring."

At halftime, the Bucks’ lead was only 45-42 despite holding Irving and Durant to a mere combined 17 points. At the 5:02 mark of the third quarter, Durant hit a three to momentarily tie the game at 57. With 1:05 left, Brown hit a floater on a feed from Durant to give the Nets their first lead at 65-64.

Asked if the Nets could take encouragement from the fact they held the Bucks to 86 points for the second straight game but just missed shots, Nash said, "Well I think it shows we defended well. We gave ourself a chance because of our defense. And our offense just couldn’t keep up tonight. We’re basically a bucket or two short."

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