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Friday, June 18, 2021

Bucks Never Trail, Force Game Seven Versus Nets

The two best words in sports are "Game Seven" and that is what we will have on Saturday when the Milwaukee Bucks visit the Brooklyn Nets to determine which team will advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. The Bucks defeated the Nets 104-89 just two days after falling victim to Kevin Durant's historic, dominant game five performance. It is amusing to watch and listen to commentators overreact to the outcome of each game in a playoff series; the oft-mentioned "momentum" in a playoff series is overrated, because playoff series are decided by matchups, not by the outcome of any particular game--other than game seven, obviously: the game seven winner wins the series 100% of the time! The team that most consistently exploits their matchup advantages will win a seven game series, but very few series will end in sweeps, so it should not be surprising when the inferior team wins one game or even more than one game--and when the teams are evenly matched, it should not be surprising that the series goes the distance, even if some of the games are decided by more than 10 points.

The two main matchup nightmares in this series are two-time regular season MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and one time regular season MVP/two-time Finals MVP Kevin Durant. In game six, Antetokounmpo scored 30 points, grabbed a game-high 17 rebounds, shot 12-20 from the field, and did not attempt a three pointer. That last statistic may be the most important: few, if any, players can stop Antetokounmpo when he attacks the hoop, and the Nets do not have anyone who can keep Antetokounmpo out of the paint when he is determined to attack. Durant finished with 30 points and 11 rebounds while shooting 15-30 from the field, which is a great performance for just about any other player and a better than average performance even for him--but not quite the masterful level that he reached in game five. The two superstars essentially canceled each other out--albeit with different playing styles--and the difference was that Khris Middleton scored a playoff career-high 38 points while grabbing 10 rebounds, passing for five assists, and swiping five steals. In contrast, only two Nets other than Durant scored in double figures--James Harden (16 points) and Blake Griffin (12 points)--and they combined to score 10 less than Middleton did. Jrue Holiday, who like Middleton has had an up and down series, added 21 points, though he shot just 8-21 from the field (including 1-10 from three point range). Before the series, it was reasonable to assume that over the course of seven games Antetokounmpo and Durant would perform at similar levels and the outcome would be decided by Middelton/Holiday versus Kyrie Irving/James Harden. With Irving out of action due to injury and Harden limited due to injury, the Bucks enjoy matchup advantages, but they must exploit those advantages in order to win.

Many media members love binary narratives--someone has to be the hero and someone has to be the goat--but the reality is rarely that simple. Here, Durant and Antetokounmpo are both all-time great players, but one of them is going to lose in the second round this season and--unless one of them lays an egg in game seven--it cannot honestly be said that either one has played poorly or should be blamed if his team loses. In the 1980s, when Magic beat Bird or Bird beat Magic, intelligent people understood that the "loser" one year had not suddenly become a bum (though there were some overreaction takes back then, too), and regardless of which star is eliminated on Saturday we should not draw sweeping conclusions about that player's skill set, career, and legacy.

Durant is a "made man" in the sense that he is a two-time NBA champion, but unless/until he wins another title some people will assert that his rings are "tainted" because he joined a Warriors team that had already won a title. I don't like the way that Durant has jumped from team to team, but I have enough sense and objectivity to understand that his two rings "count." 

Unless/until Antetokounmpo wins a title, he will be criticized as a player who "cannot win the big one." Any great player who does not win a championship early in his career is tagged with that label. Michael Jordan dealt with that, and so did LeBron James. I look at things differently: I look less at whether or not a player has won a ring and more at whether or not he has the necessary skill set and mentality to do so. Antetokounmpo is a seven footer who is a dominant paint scorer, an elite rebounder, an elite defensive player, and an above average passer. It makes no sense to assert that he "cannot win the big one." He cannot win the big one by himself, but no player can or ever has. He needs the right coaching, the right supporting cast, and a little bit of good fortune (almost every championship run features that, in the form of teams faced/avoided, injuries suffered/avoided, and so forth).

Antetokounmpo seems to have a championship-level supporting cast around him, but those guys have at least as much to prove in game seven as he does. Middleton has been great at home but mediocre at best on the road in this series. Holiday is a scorer/playmaker/defender who has seemed out of sorts for much of this series. If Middleton and Holiday disappear in game seven, the Bucks will lose even if Antetokounmpo scores 40 or 50 points.

Middleton in particular has the necessary size, skill set and talent to have a big impact in game seven. Antetokounmpo and Middleton have each had at least one 30 point/10 rebound game in this series. The only other duo in NBA playoff history to accomplish that feat is Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant as their L.A. Lakers defeated the Sacramento Kings 4-3 in the 2002 Western Conference Finals. Think about that for a moment: Antetokounmpo is a dominant paint scorer and rebounder, while Middleton is a sharpshooting wing who can also rebound and defend. With Holiday as a third option, they have the potential to win not just one title but multiple titles. Remember that before O'Neal and Bryant won three straight titles they had to overcome a double digit fourth quarter deficit in game seven of the 2000 Western Conference Finals. If O'Neal and Bryant had lost that game would that have proven that they could never win a title? You can bet that some hot takes to that effect were being written during that fourth quarter but never saw the light of day after the Lakers came back to win that game.

The formula for a Bucks' victory in game seven goes something like this: attack the paint, shoot three pointers judiciously but accurately, limit Durant to 35 points or less without giving up easy shots to his teammates, and get 85-90 points from the Antetokounmpo/Middleton/Holiday trio. In the Bucks' three home wins in this series, they have held the Nets to 83, 96, and 89 points, but in the Bucks' three road losses the Nets have exploded for 115, 125, and 114 points. The Bucks have yet to score 110 points in a game this series, and they will almost certainly lose game seven if they let the Nets score more than 110 points. The Bucks have more size and--assuming Kyrie Irving is not able to play in game seven--a bit more depth than the Nets; it is axiomatic that any playoff team should score in transition whenever possible, because it is so difficult to score against good playoff teams, but in general the Bucks benefit from pounding the Nets in the paint, which will wear down the Nets and take away some of their sharpness on offense.

The formula for a Nets' victory in game seven goes something like this: Durant explodes for 40 points with efficient shooting, at least three other Nets score in double figures (Blake Griffin, Jeff Green, James Harden, or Joe Harris are the most likely candidates), and the Nets score at least 110 points while holding down Middleton and Holiday, and enticing Antetokounmpo to settle for shots outside of the paint.

If both teams play their best game then the Bucks will win a close game. The key question/mystery is whether or not Antetokounmpo's supporting cast can produce something close to their best games on the road in an elimination game. I picked the Bucks before the series began, and I am not one of those "hot take" charlatans who changes his pick as a series progresses. Game seven will be fascinating, though the postgame overreactions--regardless of who wins--will be annoying.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:48 AM



At Sunday, June 20, 2021 11:24:00 PM, Blogger Tristan said...


The grit and relative discipline of the Bucks came through in the end. Giannis's and Middleton's OT buckets once again showed the eternal value of low-post and midrange scoring in the playoffs, Holiday fought past his shooting woes and was clutch in the 4th (also played excellent physical defense on Durant's last shot in OT), and Lopez played large with crucial 3s and timely blocks on Durant's drives. I really hope that the Bucks win it all this year, but Atlanta and/or either WCF team will be tough outs like the Nets.

Injuries aside, this series demonstrated why Harden should never have been sold as an All-NBA / all-time level talent. He wasted almost all of the shot clock massaging and caressing the ball, then jacking up a trey, or just casually flinging a pass to Joe Harris (I think) when he wasn't expecting it. I just can't fathom how anyone would enjoy playing with him on offense and maybe defense too. In my opinion, he played with disinterest just because he has to defer to Durant and maybe Irving, who are truly more skilled and better scorers than Harden. That pointless push foul on Lopez at the end of OT, which just padded Milwaukee's final margin, was the exclamation mark on Harden's sorry run.

Durant proved that he was the best player in the world after he essentially swept LeBron in back-to-back Finals (2017 was the lone blip when Cleveland took Game 4), and yet the mainstream media just started to proclaim Durant as Number 1 now (while still making LeBron the hero of their nauseating narratives). With Durant / Jokic / Leonard (and of course, James) out, however, Giannis should finally lay claim to the proverbial crown.

You are spot-on about the similarities between Shaq / Kobe and Giannis / Khris, and the potential for these Bucks to win multiple titles. The real question would be who's the better third star: Robert Horry, or Jrue Holiday.


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