The Nets' Kyrie Irving shoots past the Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo...

The Nets' Kyrie Irving shoots past the Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo during the first half of an NBA game Saturday in Milwaukee. Credit: AP/Morry Gash

MILWAUKEE — Big news and a big win.

That’s what the Nets got Saturday night against the Bucks. On the same day that coach Steve Nash announced that he expects Kevin Durant to be back on the court this week, his team pulled off an improbable upset of the defending NBA champions.

In a game reminiscent of the intense battle the two teams fought in last season’s Eastern Conference playoff series, Kyrie Irving scored a season-high 38 points to lead the Nets to a 126-123 win.

Irving scored 21 of the Nets’ 73 points in the second half.

"I thought Kyrie was amazing," Nash said. "He had incredible shot-making and carried a big portion of our offense. He improves the whole team with his presence."

Added Goran Dragic: "When you watch Kyrie, it feels like he’s in a video game. It’s amazing how he moves and makes those tough shots."

Bruce Brown hit a three-pointer with 1:38 left to put the Nets ahead for good at 118-116. The teams totaled 19 free-throw attempts in the final 21.7 seconds, with the Nets hitting enough of them to keep Milwaukee at bay. Between them, the Nets and Bucks attempted 40 free throws in the fourth quarter.

The win was the Nets’ biggest since they were in first place in the conference and defeated Chicago on Jan. 12, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The Nets have basically been in a free fall since Durant sprained the MCL in his left knee on Jan. 15. They had lost 14 of their last 18 games entering Saturday and dropped from first place to eighth place in the conference.

"They deserved it," Nash said. "I think that’s the message to the team here. They’ve had some tough weeks here and we’ve asked them to stay together . . . If we can weather this period where we are undermanned and we’re struggling, the rewards will be there later."

The Nets won despite a lights-out shooting performance by former Knick Bobby Portis, who had 30 points — including a career-high eight three-pointers in 14 attempts — and 12 rebounds. Giannis Antetokounmpo had 29 points, 14 rebounds and six assists, Khris Middleton added 25 points and Jrue Holiday had 19.

The game marked the first time Irving played the Bucks since he injured his ankle in Game 4 of last year’s second- round playoff series. The Bucks won that series in seven games.

"It was definitely emotional for me to prepare for this game," Irving said. "I haven’t been back in this building since [the injury]. It definitely felt like there was a weight lifted just being back here and getting healthy and getting a win and knowing we can see them down the line again."

The Bucks easily beat the Nets in their first two meetings this season, 127-104 in the season opener in Milwaukee and 129-101 in Brooklyn on Jan. 7.

The Nets (32-29) are only a game behind seventh-place Toronto in the Eastern Conference.

The bad news for them is that they will host the Raptors on Monday and play in Toronto on Tuesday, and Irving will miss both games because he is unvaccinated. Nash said it is likely that Durant will not play in either game.

With only 21 games remaining, the Nets are starting to feel a sense of urgency. Irving said the team got together after the All-Star break and put some goals on the board. He also said it was great to get some help from some of their newest additions.

Seth Curry scored 19 points and shot 4-for-8 from three-point range.

Andre Drummond had 17 points, 12 rebounds and five assists.

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