Bucks-Nets Preview: Bucks Go for One Last Run at the East’s Top Seed

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With just nine games left in the season, this quick two-game series with the Nets is a prime opportunity – and, really, the last opportunity – to make a run at the 1 seed. The Bucks are 3.5 games behind the Nets and 3 games behind the Sixers, and it’s hard to see them catching either team at this point without a sweep in the Fiserv Forum. Making up less than 2 games with seven to go is certainly a more reasonable goal, even if it will still require a great finish and some help.

Now, the obvious question is this – do we really need the 1 seed? The short answer is no; we’ve seen the last two seasons that regular season dominance – while important – is not a surefire sign of playoff success. Playoff basketball is a different beast, and the Bucks have often fallen a little short when they’ve needed to change to match it. This year, Jrue Holiday is at the top of a long list of roster and stylistic changes, and the Bucks are far more concerned about what happens once they get to the playoffs rather than the seed with which they enter the arena.

With that said, there’s a very obvious top three in the East this year with these two teams and the Sixers. Whoever gets the top seed will be able to avoid the other two until the conference finals. That’s likely not an irrelevant advantage. To summarize: root for the Bucks to make a late run to the top here because it would be nice, but don’t be too worried if it doesn’t happen. The 1 seed was never the goal this year, and we won’t know if that approach pays off until after the regular season is over. With that, let’s take a closer look at today’s game.

FAST FACTS – 

The Game: Brooklyn Nets (43-21) @ Milwaukee Bucks (39-24)

The Place: Milwaukee, Wisconsin

The Time: 2:30 Central

The TV: ABC

The Likely Starters: 

Bucks – Holiday, DiVincenzo, Middleton, Antetokounmpo, Lopez 

Nets – Irving, Shamet, Harris, Green, Durant

Injury Report:

Bucks: Giannis (ankle) is probable while Axel Toupane (oblique) is out. It looks like we’ll only have one of our stars today, unfortunately. 

Nets: Chris Chiozza (hand), Spencer Dinwiddie (ACL), and James Harden (hamstring) are all out. Both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are off the injury report and should be good to go in at least some capacity after some recent injury issues. Nicolas Claxton is also out as he works to regain his fitness after a recent return from health and safety protocol. 

WHAT TO KNOW ABOUT THE NETS-

  • They’re a really good basketball team, but…

The first part probably goes without saying at this point. Brooklyn’s star power and high-level performance is very well-documented. A deeper look at the numbers, however, can be pretty interesting. We can start at the surface with record – the Nets are a very good 43-21 and have won twenty-nine of their last thirty-eight games. That’s great.

But more involved statistics tell a slightly different story. The Nets do have the best offense in the league by scoring efficiency (points per 100 possessions), but they’re all the way down in 25th in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions). That puts them in seventh in net rating, which combines the two. Seventh is still a solid place to be, but it’s a little outside of the typical range that champions finish the season in, and it puts Brooklyn behind the Bucks (3rd) and Sixers (5th).

The Nets are also just seventh in point differential, again behind the Bucks (2nd) and Sixers (6th). This suggests that they have a slightly inflated record, and that’s backed up by their expected record being just 40-24 (seventh). The Bucks, for reference’s sake, are third with an expected record of 43-24. Brooklyn is just seventh in SRS as well, and that combines point differential with strength of schedule. The Bucks are 2nd there.

Brooklyn has a really good basketball team, and, as we’ll get to next, they haven’t been anywhere near full health this season. That doesn’t mean that their record isn’t a little bit better than it likely should be.

  • They’ve rarely had all of their guys

This is also true. Harden, Irving, and Durant have played just seven games together this year, and the Nets have often been without two of their three stars. This makes Brooklyn a fascinating team. What happens when Harden, who might not return before the playoffs after some setbacks, comes back? Is it as simple as plug-and-chug to a title? Or will there be some serious issues with rhythm, chemistry, and more that drag down a team that probably isn’t quite as flawless and overpowering as some like to say they are? That won’t matter much in this game, but it’s a very interesting storyline to watch this summer.

  • Kyrie has been very good when he’s on the court

Irving will be out there today, and he’s having a great season outsides of the amount of games he’s missed. He’s averaging roughly 27 points, 6 assists, and 5 boards per game while knocking down over 38% of his threes. That’s almost as good as it gets. Kyrie is one of the most skilled offensive players in the game, and the Bucks’ defensive plan for him will be a major subplot in this game (if they choose to give away something they might want to save for the playoffs). Given the shooters and weapons all around the court in Brooklyn, it’s likely that Jrue gets the assignment and will be left to do whatever he can on his own. 

  • Durant is back

KD has only played 27 games, which has to be a little concerning for the Nets thinking about both this year and the future, but he’s also been great when available. He’s averaging more than 27 points, almost 7 rebounds, and over 5 assists per game. He’s shooting over 47% from three. Durant is still a very special offensive player.

With KD, the question from the Bucks’ perspective is Giannis. Antetokounmpo thrives defensively in the safety-like role that he typically fills, but one of the major criticisms of the Bucks in past playoffs has been their decision to not unleash him as an iso defender on the other team’s best scorer. It would change some things scheme-wise and might not go as well as we think, but, at this point, it’s probably worth the try. The only question is whether we go to it here or wait and keep it under wraps until a potential playoff series with the Nets. 

  • Harris, Shamet, and Green can shoot

Joe Harris is making 48.3% of his threes on over six attempts per game. Landry Shamet and Jeff Green are both making just under 39% of their threes on 5.5 and 3.6 attempts per game, respectively. These are the three to watch outside of Kyrie and KD. Leave them open, and you will get burned. That’s what makes the Nets so hard to guard – focusing on these guys only makes it easier for some of the best individual scorers in the league to do their thing. You can’t stop the Nets; the key for the Bucks over these next two games is figuring out how to best slow them down.

  • There’s not much size to speak of

Durant is the de facto starting center at this point. DeAndre Jordan is playing just twenty minutes per game. Claxton is out. Blake Griffin has been solid in a smaller role, but he’s not rim protector. The Bucks could really take advantage of the paint in this one, so look for Giannis and Brook to attack early and often down low.

WHAT TO WATCH –

  • Giannis’s performance

We wouldn’t be seeing Giannis back so soon if his ankle was anything more than a small problem, so it’s a great sign in and of itself that he’s likely playing today. It’s still worth watching him to see how he performs after almost two full games off. We’re obviously getting very close to the time when things need to be firing on all cylinders, so we want to see Giannis come out and look like his normal self in this one.

  • The defense

I went into this above a little bit, but it will be interesting to see what the Bucks do defensively in this one. You don’t want to give away all of your secret plans to give the Nets time to adjust before the playoffs. You also want to try some things out to see if they work or not. This is true for both teams on both sides of the court. It should be fun to see what Bud and Nash are willing to reveal.

In another vein, watching Jrue and PJ go to work defensively late in a close game against the Nets is something I would love to see. We brought PJ in for his defensive versatility, and this is the kind of team it will matter the most against. These two can do some beautiful things on that side of the game.

  • Khris’s efficiency 

Middleton has been his usual elite self from three as far as percentages go. The same could not be said about his performance inside the arc. He shot just 42% from two in April, a far cry from the first part of his 50-40-90 potential. He’s gotten progressively worse as the season has gone along. I don’t what exactly the issue is, but it’s time to fix it. We need Khris at his best for the playoffs.

Prediction: Bucks 127, Nets 121. Let’s take this one and make a statement.

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