Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks is defended by...

Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks is defended by Nicolas Claxton #33 of the Brooklyn Nets in Game 2 of the Second Round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs at Barclays Center on Monday, June 7, 2021. Credit: Steven Ryan

The Bucks won the regular-season series by a 2-1 margin over the Nets, averaged 120.3 points in those games and got a combined average of 85.3 points per game from their Big 3 of two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and All-Stars Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. They seemed like the team most capable of matching up with the Nets, the consensus favorite to win the NBA title.

But even though the Nets lost James Harden to right hamstring tightness just 43 seconds into the series, they scored blowout wins in Games 1 and 2, leading by as much as 27 points in the first and a ridiculous 49 in the second while holding the NBA’s highest-scoring team to an average of 96.5 points and the Bucks Big 3 to an average of 56.0 points.

During the regular season, the Nets were a middle-of-the-pack defensive team, but when they came up against a team they viewed as a major threat to their title hopes, they proved themselves capable of playing championship-caliber playoff defense. Their 39-point Game 2 win on Monday was a franchise playoff record margin of victory.

Joe Harris acknowledged the Nets are playing their best defense of the season at the right time. "Obviously, we feel pretty good after two super-sound efforts where we executed the game plan, we were sacrificing for one another, especially on the defensive end," Harris said. "It seemed like we were closing a lot of gaps. It was just a level of intensity and attention to detail. Probably some of the best possessions, quarters that we’ve had all season."

It’s not yet clear if the Bucks have suffered a mortal blow to their confidence, but they definitely are reeling and in desperation mode heading to Game 3 Thursday night at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee. Like all the Nets, Harris warned about reading too much into the magnitude of the Nets’ first two series wins.

"We obviously feel good, but at the same time, we know that there is still a lot of basketball to be played and now the whole mindset is not to be complacent or lax, just to have the same level of focus and preparation going into Game 3," Harris said. "It’s going to be a tough environment in Milwaukee."

Indeed, the memory of two straight losses on May 2 and 4 in Milwaukee, where the Nets blew two fourth-quarter leads, should serve as incentive to maintain their newfound defensive toughness. Kyrie Irving evoked the memory of that last trip to Milwaukee in the aftermath of the Nets’ 2-0 sweep at Barclays Center.

"Being in the playoffs, understanding the home crowd does make a difference and people play a lot more comfortable when they’re at home," Irving said. "So we just want to come in and break their rhythm a little bit.

"Those guys are looking for a response game, and we just have to be prepared. The fans aren’t going to come on the court and block anybody’s shot or do anything that makes a difference in our communication. So we just have to make sure we’re doing those little things."

Credit for the Nets’ dramatic defensive improvement has to go to first-year coach Steve Nash and his staff. "The guys have worked hard this year trying to find our best level defensively, what works for us and how we can refine and improve it," Nash said after Game 2. "Tonight was exceptional. But our defense has been pretty solid throughout the playoffs.

"It’s something we’re proud of, but we’ve always got to feel like underdogs and play with that heart and connectivity and do everything we can to overcome some of the disadvantages we have in size. We’re growing at that end of the floor."

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