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Bucks clinch playoff berth, sweep mini-series with Nets to tighten top of Eastern Conference

Jim Owczarski, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
·5 min read
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The sprint for one of the top seeds in the Eastern Conference is officially on.

The Milwaukee Bucks swept a mini-series with the Brooklyn Nets with a 124-118 victory Tuesday night at Fiserv Forum, giving them the head-to-head tiebreaker and pulling to within a game in the loss column of the Nets.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 36 points, the final two coming of clutch free throws with 51.9 seconds left. He also had 12 rebounds. Jrue Holiday had 23 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds and Khris Middleton had 23 points.

The Bucks (41-24) clinched a playoff spot in winning their third straight while sending the Nets (43-23) to their third straight loss. It is just the second time this season the Nets have lost that many in a row.

Kyrie Irving (38 points) and Kevin Durant (32) led the Nets offensively.

The Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo soars past the Nets' Blake Griffin (2) during the second half.
The Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo soars past the Nets' Blake Griffin (2) during the second half.

Milwaukee also owns the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Eastern Conference leading Philadelphia 76ers (44-21), who were idle. The Bucks have gone 5-1 against the conference’s top two teams.

The Bucks have largely been a stalking horse for the Nets and 76ers in the No. 3 spot all season and if they remain in that position, they may have to play the 76ers and Nets in consecutive playoff series to reach the NBA Finals.

If they can overtake one of them in the final 12 days of the season, it sets them up for an opening round against a play-in opponent and avoids Brooklyn or Philadelphia until the Eastern Conference Finals.

Now, the Bucks have remained consistent in their messaging about the top seed as they know it guarantees nothing beyond home court. They have, however, wanted to make sure they are playing their best come the start of the postseason. Entering the home stretch with consecutive wins over the Nets is a positive sign.

The Bucks host the red-hot Washington Wizards on Wednesday night and the Nets fly out to Dallas to continue their five-game road trip.

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For the second straight game Milwaukee was led by its three stars, but it was Donte DiVincenzo and Bryn Forbes who set the team off on a game-deciding 20-3 run in the fourth quarter.

Brooklyn had built a 103-97 lead before the two guards scored seven straight points. That got Milwaukee off and running and the “big three” added the next 11 points of that streak before DiVincenzo capped it with a basket to give the Bucks a 117-106 lead with 4:28 left in the game.

The Bucks needed nearly the entire margin, too, as the Nets would cut it to 122-118 on two free throws by Irving with 1:02 remaining. But Antetokounmpo made a pair of free throws after he was fouled intentionally by Griffin, making it 124-118, and then Holiday picked Irving’s pocket to clinch it.

DiVincenzo finished with 10 points and 15 rebounds while Forbes scored 14 points and hit four of his seven three-pointers. Brook Lopez added eight points.

The Bucks built slightly on an eight-point halftime advantage to lead 78-68 at the 6:56 mark thanks to a quick five points from Lopez and Holiday. But then Durant and Irving took control of the offense, as the pair scored 21 straight Nets points over about 5½ minutes to flip the scoreboard. A Durant three-pointer erased the double-digit lead entirely in giving the Nets a 89-88 lead with 54 seconds left and an Irving triple put them up 92-90. A pair of Blake Griffin free throws with two seconds left gave the Nets a 94-92 advantage going into the fourth quarter.

Milwaukee took a 66-58 lead into the break not just because Antetokounmpo scored 21 points, but because the Bucks also were able to flip a 48-44 deficit to a 54-52 lead when he was off the floor after being whistled for his third foul with just under eight minutes left in the half.

The foul was drawn by Durant, and it was the second offensive foul of the quarter on Antetokounmpo. But Middleton and Forbes scored all 10 points in that stretch.

Holiday scored 15 points in the first half and Forbes had 11, and the Bucks scored eight points off seven Brooklyn turnovers.

Durant had 17 in the opening half for the Nets and he was followed by Irving with 14.

The Bucks led for most of the half after the Nets took an early 9-4 lead as Antetokounmpo keyed a 10-0 run with a three-pointer and three-point play. Five points would be the most the Bucks would lead in the first quarter, but they never trailed as they headed into the second up, 34-33.

Mike James gave Brooklyn a spark off the bench, though, and scored seven points in just under three minutes to help the Nets take a 42-39 lead early in the second quarter. Durant followed with six points of his own and then drew the foul on Antetokounmpo, which seemingly changed the momentum until Middleton and Forbes got hot.

Antetokounmpo returned to the court with just under five minutes to go in the half, but it was the bench that contributed seven points in a closing 12-6 run that at one point had the Bucks up, 66-56.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Bucks clinch NBA playoff berth, sweep mini-series with Nets