The Milwaukee Bucks got off the mat at home in Game 3 on Thursday, defeating the Brooklyn Nets 86-83 to cut their second-round series deficit to 2-1.
This one was far from pretty, as is evident in the final score. In fact, one could argue that an off shooting night by Kevin Durant (11-for-28) was the main reason for Milwaukee’s ability to pull off the win. Racing out to a 30-11 first-quarter lead, the Bucks struggled to hang on even as KD was not at his best.
In order for the Deer to really have a shot at knocking out the Nets, here are three key objectives that could very well be the designs of a series-winning blueprint.
Feed Khris Middleton early, build Giannis Antetokounmpo’s confidence late
The first quarter of Game 3 was literally all Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo. They scored 15 points apiece to account for all of Milwaukee’s points in the first 12 minutes of action.
Getting Middleton off to a hot start and getting his usage up is key, because he can tend to disappear if he’s not engaged early. In Giannis’ case, he’s been struggling from 3-point range and as a free-throw shooter, which has been a common theme in his career during the playoffs. That makes him less assertive and confident in crunch time.
In order for Milwaukee to take that next big step and for the Greek Freak to fully realize his potential, it’s vital for the Bucks to find a way to put Giannis in position to succeed late. That’s the only way this core is going to do enough to ultimately win a championship.
Much of this is on Giannis himself, but when he was dominant early on Thursday, head coach Mike Budenholzer didn’t do enough to feed his biggest star. Instead, Antetokounmpo fell in love with his jumper, and allowed the Nets right back into the game.
It may seem obvious, but Middleton needs to shoulder the load and be the chief offensive catalyst early, setting the stage for Giannis to take over late. Otherwise, these Bucks aren’t going to advance to the Conference Finals.
Let Kevin Durant get his, stop everyone else
Let’s be real: If Durant’s shot had been true in Game 3, we’d be talking about a potential sweep. For that matter, typical outside sharpshooter Joe Harris (1-for-11) struggled mightily as well, missing a number of quality looks, with multiple shots coming off second-chance opportunities.
Durant isn’t going to be down for long, and while James Harden can flip the series whenever he returns from a nagging hamstring injury, the Bucks’ best bet at this point is to just let KD get his.
Between Kyrie Irving, Harris, Blake Griffin and even Bruce Brown, there are a number of threats on the Nets who can make Milwaukee pay if they aren’t accounted for.
And before you snicker at that statement, consider this: Irving, Durant and Harden all missed significant chunks of the season, and Harden even arrived in an in-season trade. This squad still achieved the East’s No. 2 seed. We’re not talking about a bunch of scrubs beyond Brooklyn’s Big Three.
That’s why the Deer should let Durant get his.
Lean into massive size advantage
Brook Lopez is maybe the most underrated interior defender in the NBA. Somewhat of a forgotten man in the later phases of his career, Lopez has reinvented himself as a floor-stretching 3-point marksman and an exceptional rim protector.
Lopez had six blocks in Game 3, frequently denying the Nets’ best finishers in the paint. He also contributed 10 rebounds, and that underscores an area where Milwaukee must do better to assert its collective will in this series.
Whether or not the Bucks can rally is really going to be about their ability to clean the glass and assert their will near the rack. Giannis, Middleton and Lopez should all be getting inside with ease. Their length is a big problem that they’re not fully exploiting, or at least not consistently enough.
Giannis and Middleton both had double-doubles in points and rebounds, so they’re doing their part on the boards. Having said that, those raw numbers are a little deceiving, because neither team shot well at all in Game 3. The rebound battle (56-50 in the Bucks’ favor) was pretty even, and Milwaukee must widen that gap to rally in this series.