The Nets’ superstars are gone. The Bucks’ superstar remains.
That new fact of life for the Nets was glaring on Tuesday night as they faced their first post-Kevin Durant/Kyrie Irving visit from Giannis Antetokounmpo.
It went as one might expect.
The Bucks won, 118-104, at Barclays Center for their 15th consecutive victory behind Antetokounmpo’s 33 points and 15 rebounds in 28 ½ minutes.
At times the Milwaukee big man was unstoppable, unleashing powerful dunks, driving layups and even a three-point basket.
The Nets (34-27) battled toe-to-toe for 2 1/2 quarters with the team whose 44-17 record is the NBA’s best, then fell apart down the stretch.
“That was the message after the game, being able to sustain it,” coach Jacques Vaughn said.
The Nets led 76-66 with 6:47 left in the third quarter before it all went wrong.
They gave up 39 points in the third quarter and scored only 42 themselves in the entire second half.
Mikal Bridges scored 31 points and Spencer Dinwiddie 26 with eight assists and six rebounds for the Nets, whose bench scored 14 points and shot 4-for-22.
Antetokounmpo had missed the Bucks’ previous game with a quadriceps injury, but he looked just fine.
“Giannis was doing Giannis things,” Bridges said, “driving, creating, getting to the paint, kicking out, dunking it, doing everything.”
Said Dinwiddie: “He turned the tide of the game and took over . . . He turned it up a notch and we didn’t match it.”
Antetokounmpo’s most dramatic play came late in the first quarter, a dramatic dunk over Nic Claxton and Dorian Finney-Smith.
“We were good at some areas where he had two bodies on him and he was still able to convert,” Vaughn said. “Pretty impressive by him, still finishing at the rim.”
The Nets have lost five of six since the trade of Durant to the Suns became official.
They now face seven out of eight games on the road, starting Wednesday against the surging Knicks. They are in danger of sliding out of the Eastern Conference’s top six and into the play-in tournament.
The Nets led 28-13 early and 34-22 after one quarter. It was 62-52 at halftime and 76-66 after a 10-0 Nets run. It was all downhill from there for the home team.
Even after Antetokounmpo departed with 5:04 left in the third upon getting called for his fourth personal foul, his mates had his back.
The Bucks took an 85-84 lead on Bobby Portis’ corner three-pointer and led 91-85 after three, closing the quarter with a 25-9 surge.
It was 102-90 with 7:30 left, and the Nets’ shooting was far too cold for a comeback.
Asked on Bally Sports Wisconsin why he is playing through a banged-up leg and wrist, Antetokounmpo said: “I just love the game of basketball.
“You’ve got to listen to your body, but I’m just happy that I’m able to be out here with my teammates. I’m happy that we were able to get this win and that I’m able to leave this floor healthy.”
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said before the game that he expected a challenge.
He thought so even if the Nets bore little resemblance to the team his Bucks eliminated in the 2021 conference semifinals en route to the NBA championship — not to mention to the Nets who beat the Bucks, 118-110, on Dec. 23, when the teams last met in Brooklyn.
“No doubt the respect for Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving is very, very high in our locker room and across the league,” Budenholzer said. “When players like that change teams, it changes the look and feel of things.”
Notes & quotes: Ben Simmons (knee), Edmond Sumner (personal reasons) and Yuta Watanabe (back) did not play. Simmons will not play Wednesday.