If this was a playoff preview, the fans got their money’s worth. And the Bucks got the win.
Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo dueled back-and-forth, MVP against MVP. Until Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton stepped up to tilt the scales, that is.
The Nets led early in the fourth quarter, until Middleton sparked the decisive run to hand the Nets a 117-114 loss before a sellout crowd of 3,280 at Fiserv Forum.
Durant had 42 points and 10 rebounds but missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer that fell just short at the buzzer.
Antetokounmpo poured in a season-high 49 points, and Middleton had six of his 26 during an 11-0 run that gave the Bucks the lead for good.
The Nets (43-22) fell into a virtual tie atop the Eastern Conference, pending Philadelphia’s game against San Antonio later Sunday night. They saw their lead over third-seeded Milwaukee (40-24) slashed to just 2 ¹/₂ games.
If the Nets and Bucks finish second and third, they would be on a collision course to meet in the second round of the playoffs.
“It’s a great rehearsal,” coach Steve Nash said. “Obviously, the game means a lot as far as seeding, but it’s also great that we approach the business end here, and everyone’s trying to find themselves and make sure they’re prepared to play at as high a level as possible. In a sense, things feel a little heightened now, and that’s great. It’s exciting, and it’s good for our team to face that type of realness, so to speak.”
The Nets ran into some playoff-level defense on Sunday, arguably the toughest they’ve seen all season. Kyrie Irving, who has been putting defenders on skates, had to work for his 20 points and six assists against Jrue Holiday.
The Nets went big against Milwaukee, starting DeAndre Jordan at center and essentially leaving him alone on Antetokounmpo. They dared the Greek Freak to hit jump shots, and the rest of the Bucks to beat them.
It didn’t work out.
“There’s no secret that you want to keep [Antetokounmpo] away from the basket. He’s so dominant at the rim, incredible in transition, picking-and-rolling, offensive rebounds, whatever it may be, so long, athletic,” Nash said. “If he gets to the basket, it’s trouble, not just because he can score or draw a crowd for offensive rebounds, or kick out and make those rotations really long.
“So it’s really important for us to keep him off our rim and outside of that area around the basket. But easier said than done, especially when they have some sort of balance. So many guys that are capable, they shoot the 3 very well, and Middleton and Holiday are All-Star level players. So great challenge for us.”
And after a high-quality, back-and-forth affair — with five lead changes and seven ties through three quarters — it was knotted again at 90-all going into the fourth.
The Nets had been 35-1 when leading or tied entering the final period. Now its 35-2.
They scored the first six points of the period with Durant and Irving both off the floor. Landry Shamet found Blake Griffin for a 3-pointer, and Griffin returned the favor after a Donte DiVincenzo miss, hitting Shamet for a 3 and 96-90 lead.
But the Bucks went on an 11-0 run to steal the momentum. A Holiday 3-pointer left the Nets in a 101-96 hole with 7:29 to play.
It was 113-107 after a Pat Connaughton 3-pointer with 3:51 left. The deficit was cut to three, but no closer, as Durant missed at the buzzer.
The last time the teams met, the Nets won at Barclays Center behind 34 points and 12 assists from James Harden. But Harden was out Sunday with a hamstring injury and might not be back before the playoffs.
“It definitely can be a preview. Both teams are vying and expecting to make a run at this thing, so that’s definitely possible,” Nash said. “I don’t know that we’ve had enough time and have a big enough catalogue of things to start hiding things. We are who we are. … We don’t have the corporate knowledge of four or five years of playing together. … We’re still growing, we’re still learning, we’re still trying to build every day. So we’re trying to get there, let alone start hiding things.”
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