Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks scores on Day'Ron Sharpe of the Nets...

Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks scores on Day'Ron Sharpe of the Nets during their game at Barclays Center on Wednesday. Credit: Errol Anderson

The schedule said it was a regular-season game. But the Nets made Wednesday’s night’s 144-122 loss to the Bucks at Barclays Center feel like a preseason contest.

That’s not to say it wasn’t entertaining – for the first three quarters.

Four key Nets, including three starters, did not dress because of injuries and load management. Also, Mikal Bridges, Cam Thomas and Royce O’Neal did not play after the first quarter.

Still, what could have been a blowout was a surprisingly competitive game until the Bucks outscored the Baby Nets 66-43 after the Nets took their final lead at 79-78 on Keon Johnson’s three-pointer with 5:21 left in the third quarter.

One night after the Nets (15-16) sent the Pistons to an NBA record 27th consecutive defeat in a hotly-contested 118-112 victory in Detroit, Jacque Vaughn sat starters Cam Johnson, Nic Claxton and Spencer Dinwiddie. Reserve Dorian Finney-Smith also was out in a gametime decision.

So the Nets’ lineup for the opening tip was Bridges, O’Neal, Thomas, Day’Ron Sharpe, and Dennis Smith Jr.

Jalen Wilson, Armoni Brooks and Trendon Watford replaced Bridges, Thomas and O’Neal to start the second half.

Vaughn said he sat Bridges, Thomas and O'Neal after the first quarter because he felt, the way the game was going, if he committed to playing them it would have meant committing to upwards of 40 minutes – and he just wasn't going to do that.

When it was suggested that the game felt like an "exhibition,” Vaughn gave an impassioned answer.

“I have too much respect for the dudes that suit up and put their body on the line and the competition level to even mention the word ‘exhibition,’” he said. “Any guy could have ended their career tonight by one play. And so I treat it as such.”

Wilson led the Nets with 21 points (the rookie hit all 11 of his free throw attempts) and 10 rebounds. Watford had 17 points.

"For us, that was the most minutes I think we've all played on the floor," Wilson said. "And it just so happened that we played against one of the best players in the NBA. So many things happened."

Noah Clowney, the 19-year-old first-round pick who was called up from Long Island of the G League, scored the first 14 points of his career in his second NBA game.

Giannis Antetokounmpo led Milwaukee (23-8) with 32 points and 10 rebounds. Khris Middleton added 27 points.

"I was nervous coming in, playing the Bucks, obviously," Clowney said. "It's a good team, a lot of big guys, so I was nervous coming in. But once I got out there, it's just being comfortable and knowing I can compete at this level."

Vaughn said before the game that only Dinwiddie was out purely because he needed the rest; the other three players who did not dress are nursing injuries (knees for Johnson and Finney-Smith, an ankle for Claxton).

“The only guy that's essentially resting tonight is Spencer,” Vaughn said. “You get maintenance from Nic and CJ, just some nagging injuries, and this game unfortunately presents an opportunity where I’ve got to think short term and long term and make executive decisions for the betterment of the group. So that's where we [were] tonight.”

If the plan was always to give some players a game off during this back-to-back, it made basketball sense to do it against the woeful Pistons rather than the powerful Bucks.

It’s tough luck for Nets fans who bought tickets to Wednesday’s game, though, and were hoping the team would put out its best lineup against Antetokounmpo and Co.

Asked what he would say to any disappointed fans, Vaughn said: “Those are executive decisions that I have to make, as an organization that we have to make, that those guys at other arenas have played sick and through pain, and it's unfortunate that tonight they just got to a point where we're putting them in harm's way by putting them out there.”

At least Antetokounmpo played. He had been listed as questionable with a sore right calf.

Bridges, who played 39:42 vs. Detroit, is the active NBA leader in regular season consecutive games played (Wednesday was his 423rd). He has never missed a regular season game.

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