MILWAUKEE — After two crushing home losses to the top two teams in the Eastern Conference, the Nets responded to building playoff pressure in a rematch with the top-seeded Bucks on Saturday night at Fiserv Forum.
The Nets blew a 15-point third-period lead but got a bench boost from Jared Dudley, who did the little things that rallied the Nets to a 133-128 victory.
The win lifted them to 40-40 and tied them for sixth place with the Magic, who would lose a tiebreaker to the Nets.
The Nets brought a 12-point lead into the final quarter, but the Bucks took a 121-120 lead on George Hill’s two free throws with 5:23 left.
There were four more lead changes and two ties before Joe Harris hit a three-pointer to give the Nets a 131-128 lead with 1:24 to go. After the Bucks’ Sterling Brown missed two foul shots with 1:15 left, D’Angelo Russell hit a layup for the two-possession lead the Nets needed to secure it.
“Given the circumstances, playoff position and where everybody is at, it’s arguably one of our biggest wins of the season,” Harris said.
Russell had 25 points and 10 assists and Caris LeVert added 24 points and five assists. Dudley had 16 points, seven rebounds and two steals off the bench.
Dudley played as a small-ball center matched against former Net Brook Lopez and made all the critical plays at the end. The possession that led to the go-ahead three by Harris started with a missed three by Dudley. Harris got that rebound, missed a layup, got the ball back again and had it knocked out of bounds. Then Russell missed a floater and Dudley rebounded and kicked it out to Harris for an open three.
On the Bucks’ next possession, Dudley fouled Brown rather than let him have an easy layup. He missed both free throws, the last of which was rebounded by Dudley. That led to Russell’s clinching layup.
“Jared Dudley was just the ‘X’ factor,” coach Kenny Atkinson said. “His IQ, his instincts, his understanding of the league. He just has a great corporate knowledge in terms of knowing how to play the basketball game.”
The Bucks (59-21) got 33 points and 11 assists from Eric Bledsoe and 24 points from Khris Middleton. After clinching home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs on Thursday with a win over the 76ers, the Bucks chose to sit out MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is nursing a sore left calf.
“It’s tough even without Giannis,” Dudley said. “I know that helped us, but with Middleton playing and Bledsoe playing like an All-Star, we just got key stops at the very end . . . The tip-out to Joe. We couldn’t really hit that one shot to give us that comfortable lead until Joe finally hit that one.”
In all those instances in which Dudley made a difference at the end and on his steals that helped fuel the Nets’ 42-point third quarter for a 108-96 lead, Dudley’s savvy was evidenced by his anticipation.
The Bucks made 16 of 34 three-point attempts (47.1 percent), but Dudley said, “It’s hard to just continually hit threes. You know they’re going to drive, so you anticipate the drive. Sometimes it’s instinct and sometimes it’s guessing. I got my hand on a couple balls, a couple steals.”
On the offensive rebound Dudley got that led to the go-ahead basket by Harris, Dudley said, “I saw Lopez daydreaming, and I just wanted to run in there and try to get an extra possession. If we get the rebound and get an extra 14 seconds, we can try to put it away.”
That they did.