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Nets encouraged by strong Game 3 defense entering Game 4 vs. Bucks

Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks drives

Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks drives to the basket against Nicolas Claxton #33 of the Nets during the first half of Game Three of the Eastern Conference second round playoff series at the Fiserv Forum on June 10, 2021 in Milwaukee. Credit: Getty Images/Stacy Revere

The Nets suffered a tough Game 3 loss in their Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Bucks on Thursday, but as Kevin Durant said following that game, they didn’t let their poor shooting affect their play at the defensive end. They held the Bucks to 86 points for the second straight game, which was an unbelievable feat.

"I like how we defended all game," Durant said. "I like how we rebounded all game. We didn’t let missed shots dictate our defense, especially when we got down big. We tied the game up. We couldn’t score for a few possessions with like four or five minutes to go . . . I just like how we stayed with it, and that’s what we have to do with this series is stay with our plan, stay with each other individually.

"Guys missing shots, and we still are encouraging one another and keep playing. Our defense has to be there no matter what."

Durant’s comments have to serve as the keynote message for the Nets heading into Game 4 Sunday afternoon at Fiserv Forum. They still have the opportunity to take a 3-1 stranglehold on the series if they can split the two games in Milwaukee.

The Bucks might have climbed back into the series with their 86-83 Game 3 win, but after averaging an NBA-best 120.1 points per game in the regular season, the Nets have held them to 93.0 points the past three games. That is a remarkable achievement for a team whose defense was considered suspect coming into the playoffs.

Asked if he is continuing to preach his defensive message to the Nets ahead of Game 4, coach Steve Nash said, "I think we always look to have the requisite fight and connectivity. It’s been pretty consistent throughout the playoffs. I just think our group is learning and growing as we go here. We’ve got a lot of opportunities of late to test ourselves, to ask questions of ourselves and come up with solutions and continue to improve. But win or lose, we’re looking to improve.

"When you lose, obviously, it hurts and you want to make up for it, but I think our team is moving in the right direction. We’re defending better than we have all year. I think offensively, we’ve executed well, we just had an off shooting night.

But you can’t say, ‘Oh, we’re fine. We just missed shots.’ You always look for ways to win when you don’t have your ‘A’ game. We had a great game defensively. We didn’t have a good game offensively. That’s going to happen, and what can we do to close the gap in games like that?"

Through three games Bucks two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo is averaging 28.3 points on 54.3% shooting. Those are great numbers, but the fact is that the Nets and center Blake Griffin, who has the main coverage responsibility, have done a solid job of containing him and making him work for his points. One metric shows that Griffin has made Antetokounmpo shoot four feet farther from the basket than anyone else guarding him. That’s a win.

"At the beginning of the series, it’s kind of like I said, you don’t really guard him one-on-one, you guard him by committee," Griffin said after Saturday’s practice. "For the most part, we’ve done a solid job. I know he’s got points here and there, he had points in the last game, but we’re just trying to make it tough on him.

"Being physical, giving him some space, but he’s a two-time MVP so he’s going to get shots. You can’t overreact to certain things. We’ve got to stay on it and tweak a few things and be better, but overall, I think we’ve done a solid job."

Khris Middleton got loose for 35 points on 12-for-25 shooting in Game 3, but the Nets held him to 15.0 points in the first two games on 6-for-23 shooting and 7-for-20 shooting.

"I don’t think we played him with the same physicality, at least not to start the game in Game 3, but he hit some shots," Griffin said. "He and Giannis came out and they were very aggressive to start in the first quarter especially. So we have to match that intensity and match that physicality."

The other member of the Bucks’ "Big 3" is Jrue Middleton, who has been held to 13.0 points per game on 39.5% shooting. So that is another measure of how tough the Nets have been at the defensive end.

Now, they just have to get their offense back in gear after a terrible shooting performance in Game 4. They have to get back to the offense that averaged 120.0 points in Games 1 and 2 when they steamrollered the Bucks.

Griffin said they must be more physical at the offensive end, too. "The thing is we got shots, we got some open shots," Griffin said of Game 3. "We just didn’t hit shots. We’re willing to bet that we will hit shots more often than not, so we just have to stick with our game plan, make some tweaks and make sure we come out in Game 4 with that physicality and intensity."

Notes & quotes: Forward Jeff Green (left plantar fascia) remains questionable for Game 4, and guard James Harden (right hamstring tightness) is out. "Both are progressing well," Nash said. "James is out tomorrow but doing very well."

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