It’s official: we’re having a Finals matchup in the second round of the NBA Playoffs, with the Brooklyn Nets securing their victory against the Boston Celtics, and consequently, a semi-finals date with the Milwaukee Bucks.
Much has been said about the Brooklyn Nets and their Big Three. The hype surrounding their talents is real; the possibility of facing their trio has been omnipresent for playoff teams this season, and for good reason. James Harden, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Durant harken back to the Golden State dynasty that dominated the NBA for years, and already, many have them pegged as the NBA champions.
Enter the Milwaukee Bucks. They’ve spent the entire year foregoing regular season dominance in favor of playoff readiness. As the season came to a close, they chose to face their demons head on instead of taking for more favorable positioning. And if their 4-0 sweep of the Miami Heat is any indication, their decision to retool is paying dividends.
Do they actually stand a chance in this series? Here’s a quick look at what the numbers say, and why the Bucks have it in them to oust the scoring juggernaut from Brooklyn.
Defense wins championships
That the Brooklyn Nets can’t play defense seems to be the go-to narrative of the team’s naysayers. How true is this really?
Brooklyn gave up a 23rd-ranked 113.8 points per 100 possessions in the regular season. The Bucks on the other hand are 10th with a 111.4 defensive rating. In these playoffs, opponents have shot 39.5% with the Bucks contesting versus the 43.4% against the Nets. Brooklyn gave up the most efficient offensive rating (128 points per 100) for any playoff series in the last 25 years against a 7th-seed Celtics team missing one of its stars.
The truth is that the Nets aren’t that bad a defensive unit individually. Brooklyn is more a mixed bag than a foregone conclusion on that end: Durant has the length but not the motor to disrupt any shot and is more than competent on the perimeter. Harden is an underrated interior defender who can hold his own in the paint but is only passable outside. It’s Brooklyn’s team defense still up in the air: Irving is still very much a turnstile on that end, while Griffin is undersized against the big men he’s made to play against.
With the luxury of PJ Tucker’s switchability, Brooklyn might find its offensive potency taking a nosedive once their stars exchange Holiday for Tucker, and Middleton for Antetokounmpo on that end. Never mind that Brooklyn’s trio is good for 78.4 of the team’s 118.6 (66.1%) points per game together: it only takes one player going dry to give the Bucks a chance.
The Bucks are an elite defensive team, and its ultra-defensive trio of Antetokounmpo, Middleton, and Holiday are capable of locking up anyone on the perimeter. With Lopez waiting to challenge slashers, scoring on these Bucks might be a challenge even for the Nets.
With players like DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin, and Nicolas Claxton filling in their center rotation, their defense of and around the five spot has always been suspect. The 62.7% field goal percentage they gave up on shots taken 6 feet from the rim was 19th in the league. Brook Lopez’s size and scoring may force the Nets to play DeAndre Jordan or Nicolas Claxton, which will only allow him to sag off them to cut off drives into the paint on the other end. Steve Nash will have to be decisive in his schemes against this Bucks team.
Speaking of their center rotation, Brooklyn’s bigs may affect them in ways that go past just interior defense. Besides Durant and Jordan, there is a marked lack of girth and verticality on this Nets team that might be their downfall against a team with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez.
For the season, the Bucks pulled down a second-ranked 48.1 rebounds per game. The Nets only managed to snag a paltry 44.4 boards a contest, good for 14th in the association. As a result, Brooklyn only attempted putback plays on 4.2% of offensive possessions and only scored 5.5 points per game off putbacks, falling bottom ten in the league in both stats. They’re also in the 45th percentile in defending putback attempts.
Can the Nets stay healthy?
That the Nets’ big three has not played side by side for much of a season is a testament to another potentially game-changing factor: their health. Irving and Durant have built up the reputation of being injury-prone in recent years. Harden can’t be given the same label, but he also struggled with hamstring injuries that left him sidelined earlier in the season.
The Bucks are entering the series without the services of Donte DiVincenzo, who would have been massive defensively against the Nets’ elite guard play. But Brooklyn is also missing Spencer Dinwiddie, who was a crucial scorer off the bench before he went down.
In the playoffs, any injury doubly affects a team’s title chances, especially when the opposition is as stacked as these two teams. At their best, both teams are elite. Take out any more players, and the result might be series-altering.
- Much like the Los Angeles Clippers of last year, the Brooklyn Nets live and die by the all-world shot-creating abilities of its superstar trio. In these playoffs, the Nets are first in the league in running isolation with 25.5% frequency. To put that number into perspective, the Boston Celtics are second at 14.6% of their plays. We saw how this worked out when Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Lou Williams weren’t hitting their shots for the Clippers last year. The Nets are certainly better isolation players, but could the same fate befall them if their offense dries up?
- Chemistry is another factor to look at. With strong, superstar personalities on the same starting lineup together, a few pundits predicted the team would implode before the season’s end. The Bucks starters save for Jrue Holiday have been together longer, while the Nets trio was only formed midway through the season but has not seen much playing time together. It didn’t seem to have much of an effect against the Boston Celtics, but a well-oiled machine like the Bucks could very well expose any fissures this gargantuan pairing might have under the surface.
- Depth might look one-sided on paper but seems to be a wash when you look at the numbers. Outside of the Nets trio, only Jeff Green, Joe Harris, and Blake Griffin are capable of scoring more than ten points per game. On the Bucks, only Bobby Portis, Bryn Forbes, and Brook Lopez are capable of doing so outside of their three stars.
Ahead of the series tip-off, Nets fans have every right to expect their team to move past the second round on talent alone.
Unfortunately for them, Bucks fans also have every right to expect a series win, as the team most uniquely equipped to stop their lethal scoring punch.
Milwaukee is to Brooklyn what Miami was to them just a year ago. If any team is positioned to take down the Nets, it’s the Bucks, with their blend of agile, pesky defenders and strong, paint-centric bigs.
Matchups can sometimes erase the advantage that talent can give you, as the Heat proved last year. When the opposition is disruptive on one end and unbothered by the defense on the other, shot-creation can only do so much. Bucks in 7.