As impressive as the Nets might have been in their 4-1 first-round series playoff victory over the Celtics with the Big 3 of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden averaging 85.2 points per game, which was an NBA playoff record for a trio, their status as favorites to win the NBA title is far from a lock.
In the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Nets face the third-seeded Bucks in Game 1 Saturday night at Barclays Center, and it may well be the most difficult challenge of all in their title quest. The Bucks were the NBA’s highest-scoring team just ahead of the Nets, they had the second-most efficient offense just behind the Nets, and they have their own "Big 3" of two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and All-Stars Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday.
That trio averaged 85.3 points in the Bucks’ 2-1 regular-season series win over the Nets, including back-to-back wins on May 2-4 in Milwaukee. Of course, the Bucks never had to face the full complement of Nets stars because Harden sat out the two losses and Irving missed the home win. Durant averaged 36.7 points and 10.3 rebounds in those games.
The Nets had a day off Wednesday, but Harden offered up a quick scouting report after their Game 5 win Tuesday night. "Obviously, Giannis, the attention he draws, then Middleton, who gets going for them, and then, Jrue Holiday is playing very well as of late," Harden said. "They’re the three main players, but we can’t let their role players impact games. Bryn Forbes has been shooting the ball lights out.
"I can remember sitting out those two games we had in Milwaukee and we fought, we had them down, it was close games, something like a playoff atmosphere. We can expect that same kind of intensity or even another level."
During the three regular-season games, Antetokounmpo utterly was unstoppable, averaging 39.7 points and 10.7 rebounds. No doubt, Durant will be matched against Antetokounmpo consistently.
"He’s long, athletic, plays hard, he cares about his teammates, he cares about winning," Durant said of Antetokounmpo. "You put that combination together, you make a tough player, and his game is expanding. He’s hitting the turnaround jumper now, he’s shooting threes, so we’ve got our work cut out. He’s a two-time MVP and defensive player of the year (in 2019-20) for a reason, so we’re looking forward to the challenge."
Durant said the Bucks’ development took off after they acquired forward P.J. Tucker and when Forbes’ role in the rotation expanded off the bench. Of course, Nets all-time scoring leader Brook Lopez starts at center and provides rim protection and occasional three-point shooting as well.
It’s just a difficult matchup for the Nets, and it certainly isn’t lost on them that they blew fourth-quarter leads in both losses in Milwaukee. "We respect everybody on their team, and we know exactly what they bring to the table," Durant said. "We’re going to challenge each other. May the best team win."
The one factor the Nets have going for them is their Big 3 got to play together for five straight games in the first round after getting only eight games together in the regular season. The way they dominated was encouraging.
"It’s exciting," Durant said of the opportunity that lies ahead with Irving and Harden. "To play . . . on this stage, so many people watching, James, Kyrie, it’s definitely cool. But I’m not trying to sit back and reflect on how nice it is to play with those guys. I’m trying to get work done and worry about how we’re going to get better each and every day. It is fun playing with two guys that pretty much do everything on a basketball court."