Despite the loss of injured James Harden, who sat courtside Monday night at Barclays Center, the Nets responded to adversity like a team that looks fully capable of playing NBA championship-caliber basketball without him. Their lead reached an absurd 49-point margin in the fourth quarter of their 125-86 blowout of the Bucks in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series.
It was the second straight superb defensive effort by the Nets, who held two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to just six first-half points. They will take a 2-0 series lead to Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee for Game 3 Thursday night.
"Whether you win by two or you win by 25, it’s just one game," Nets coach Steve Nash said. "We held home court. We performed well in the two games. For our group, we want to keep growing, keep getting better. We’re still very new to one another and so there’s a lot of things that we can continue to refine and improve and we’ll go and try to keep improving in Milwaukee."
Kevin Durant topped the Nets with 32 points and 12-for-18 shooting, Kyrie Irving added 22 points, Bruce Brown took advantage of his starting role in place of the injured Harden to contribute 13 points, and Joe Harris had 13. The Nets shot 52.1% overall and 50.0% from three-point range (21-for-42).
Blake Griffin played hard-nosed defense against Antetokounmpo, who finished with a mere 18 points when he was lifted midway through the fourth quarter and serenaded by chants of, "Where is Giannis?"
The Bucks also got 17 from Khris Middleton, who again struggled with 7-for-20 shooting. Just as they did in Game 1, the Bucks struggled from three-point range with an 8-for-27 effort.
Going into Game 2, Nash fired a bit of a curveball. After Harden was injured 43 seconds into Game 1, he gave most of Harden’s minutes to Mike James, who delivered 12 points and seven rebounds. But he switched up and went with Brown as the other starting guard alongside Irving. It wasn’t surprising because Brown frequently has been part of the starting lineup, and he brings the valuable component of defensive toughness, and so did Griffin against Antetokounmpo.
"They really came out and played well to start the game," Nash said of Brown and Griffin. "A lot of energy, a lot of fight. Blake’s been playing very well and doing all the little things, and we know Bruce does that, as well. So just their energy and fight was fantastic. It’s contagious and I thought the whole group really performed well out of the gates."
As good as the Nets’ defense was in Game 1, it was even better in Game 2 and Brown had a lot to do with that, thanks to his physical coverage of Middleton, who was scoreless in the opening period and eventually missed his first eight shots. And Griffin held Antetokounmpo to just two first-quarter points.
Starting from midway through the first quarter to early in the second period, the Nets put together an extended 30-11 run to build a 43-21 cushion. The Nets scored on 14 of 16 possessions in that stretch. The Nets’ 65-41 halftime lead tied the second-biggest halftime lead in franchise playoff history.
Asked to explain why the Nets have been able to dramatically improve their defensive effort against the Bucks, Joe Harris said: "I think a lot of it is effort, just a level of continuity where I think, as the season has gone on, we’ve improved on the defensive end. That’s just our ability to play off of one another.
"We’ve always kind of been able to do that offensively because of the level of talent we have. But defense takes time to get familiar with one another and piece it together where you’re playing so in sync that you’re able to cover for each other. That combined with a high level of intensity, a high level of preparation and you have defensive efforts like tonight."
In the second half, the Bucks never got closer than 21 points. Considering they won back-to-back games over the Nets in May in Milwaukee, the playoff turnaround has been a shocker and the Bucks have to regroup.
"I think there’s a lot of veterans, guys that have been through a lot of things and, their leadership it’s going to be important," Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. "All of us, we got to go home and win a couple games, they won two here. Now we got to go home and win a couple there."