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Bucks seem like biggest obstacle to Nets' road to NBA Finals

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo is defended by

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo is defended by Nets center DeAndre Jordan during the first half of an NBA basketball game at Barclays Center on Monday, Jan. 18, 2021. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

If this is a work in progress, Nets fans can’t wait to see the finished product.

Despite the continued absence of Kyrie Irving and no practice time since adding James Harden, the Nets won a shootout against the best team in the Eastern Conference on Monday night, defeating the Milwaukee Bucks, 125-123.

Harden and Kevin Durant totaled 64 points and teamed up for the winning three-pointer, as Harden grabbed a long rebound and found Durant at the top of the circle with 36.8 seconds left.

Harden and Durant, who were Thunder teammates early in their careers, obviously have a great feel for one another, especially late in games. The two totaled 21 of the Nets’ 31 fourth-quarter points.

"I think it was pretty seamless for us," Durant said when asked if he is surprised how quickly the two of them have jelled. "In OKC, we were young and experienced things for the first time. If we’re in the same situations again, we know how to handle ourselves."

The Nets are handling themselves like a contender. Yes, it’s just one win. But it’s one win over a very good team that entered Monday night with a four-game winning streak.

If the Nets are going to get to the NBA Finals, the Bucks are the team most likely to stand in their way. This clearly is not the same Milwaukee team that has had its struggles in recent playoffs. The Bucks made a big move to boost their odds of playing for a title, adding Jrue Holiday to Giannis Antetokounmpo and company. Holiday is a tough defensive player who can score from deep and set up his teammates.

The Bucks’ biggest strength may be the fact that they are the least-flawed team in a very flawed Eastern Conference.

Take a hard look at the Celtics, who entered Monday with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference behind the Bucks. You have to be worried about a team that loses by 30 points to the Knicks.

Yes, the Celtics were coming off some game postponements and were missing Jayson Tatum, but that was an embarrassing loss. The Celtics are just too young and Kemba Walker has too many knee issues for them to be the team that comes out of the Eastern Conference.

Next, we have the 76ers, who have a point guard in Ben Simmons who won’t shoot the ball on a regular basis. In a league that has become so predicated on shooting and spacing, having a guard who is not an offensive threat is a killer. Right now, he is averaging only 12.3 points. Joel Embiid may be able to contend for league MVP honors, but having Simmons and Tobias Harris behind him is not enough to get the 76ers to the Finals.

Who’s left? The Heat are 4-7 and really don’t have the talent. Indiana has had an interesting start and benefits from having a core that has been together for a while. Still, the Pacers don’t seem ready to take the next step.

That leaves the Bucks, who now are in a virtual tie with the Celtics atop the conference standings.

While Nets coach Steve Nash refused to see the game as a litmus test, he did see a lot of positives.

"We’re not having any parades. We have a lot of work to do," Nash said. "[Tonight] is a great positive for sure. It’s a positive for our team just to experience their level, to play a close game that goes down to the wire . . . Tonight was a great night for a lot of the guys. They stood together. We’re searching for answers and we’re still doing it together."

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