The Nets will get another immediate crack at Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, almost as if it’s a mini preview of a heavyweight playoff series that could come to fruition next month.
Tuesday’s back end of consecutive games in Milwaukee actually is now a pivotal contest for Brooklyn after Antetokounmpo outdueled Kevin Durant and netted 49 points in a 117-114 victory on Sunday at Fiserv Forum.
Another Nets loss would pull Milwaukee within 1 ½ games of a top-two spot in the Eastern Conference, and one game behind Brooklyn in the loss column. The 76ers entered their game Monday in Chicago a half-game ahead of the Nets for the No. 1 seeding position in the East.
Surpassing the Nets would earn the Bucks home-court advantage should the teams meet in the second round of the playoffs. With a potential 2-1 edge in head-to-head matchups this season, Milwaukee also would control the tiebreaker between the teams.
“Just another opportunity to get better, to play a high-quality team, try to improve performance,” Nets coach Steve Nash said Sunday when asked about the importance of Tuesday’s rematch. “What can we take from it, what can we learn from it, what can we try to execute better in the next match?”
The Nets’ game plan against Antetokounmpo on Sunday mostly was to defend him with one player — usually DeAndre Jordan — daring him to beat them with his outside shot. The two-time reigning NBA MVP expressed his dislike for going one-on-one because he believes it hinders his creativity in finding his teammates, but he nailed 4 of 8 from 3-point range in setting a season-high in points. He scored 47 in a loss to Phoenix on Feb. 10.
“We stuck with our game plan,” Jordan said. “You’ve got to give him credit. He knocked down some tough shots. He was forced into some tough turnaround jump shots. But at the end of the day, we’ve still got to be able to contest, to make him at least think about taking those shots. … We have to do a better job individually and collectively just making them think about those shots.
“They have other guys like Khris [Middleton] and Jrue [Holiday] that can create shots. But [Giannis] is obviously the main focal point. We’ve just got to be able to make shots tough for him, he got a lot of jump shots [Sunday]. Got to give them credit, [but] we’ll see these guys very, very soon.”
James Harden netted 34 points in the Nets’ home win over Milwaukee in January, but the 2018 NBA MVP has missed the past 15 games with a hamstring strain.
Durant scored 42 points in 40 minutes in Sunday’s loss — his most playing time since Jan. 27 (42) — but he missed a potential game-tying attempt from beyond the arc as time expired.
In addition to Antetokounmpo’s prowess, Middleton scored 10 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter, while Holiday helped pressure Kyrie Irving into an 8-for-21 shooting game.
“Of course, you want to gauge yourself against the best defender, best team defense, the best coaching. That’s the only way you’ll get better as a player,” Durant said after the game. “So I get excited and I relish these opportunities and we do as a team.
“I think you’ve got to give credit to Milwaukee for just making more shots than we did. I mean, you look at it across the board, and it was an even game outside of they made more shots than us. So it’s one of those games you enjoy playing in, and hopefully, it’s a better one for us next game.”
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