Don't forget about the Milwaukee Bucks.
Giannis Antetokounmpo logged another monster outing opposite Kevin Durant in Tuesday's 124-118 win over the Brooklyn Nets. The two-time reigning MVP's Bucks (41-24) drew within a loss of the Nets (43-23) and clinched the tiebreaker, sharpening the Eastern Conference playoff picture with two weeks remaining.
Two days after outscoring Durant 49-42 in another Milwaukee win, Antetokounmpo amassed 36 points, 12 rebounds and four assists, bringing his season average against Brooklyn to 40 points per game. Enough to withstand 70 combined points from Durant and Kyrie Irving on Tuesday, thanks in part to 23 points apiece from Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton. Brooklyn's James Harden (hamstring) missed a 14th straight outing.
The first two meetings between the Bucks and Nets came down to one possession. If we learned anything from their three regular-season games, a best-of-seven series between them will be a heavyweight fight. Yet, we still don't know what exactly to expect or who to favor, because Brooklyn has fielded Durant, Irving and Harden just seven times together all season — not once against Milwaukee and not at all since Feb. 5.
Here's what we do know: The No. 1 seed in the East is a massive advantage.
Considering tiebreakers, the Philadelphia 76ers (44-21) now essentially hold a three-game edge on the top seed over both the Nets and Bucks with a cupcake seven-game schedule the rest of the way. It would take a massive collapse by the Sixers for Brooklyn and Milwaukee not to land on the same side of the bracket.
That is brutal news for both teams. Not only does the No. 1 seed mean not having to face Brooklyn or Milwaukee in the second round of the playoffs, it most likely means avoiding the two defending conference finalists in the opening round. The Miami Heat and Boston Celtics are sitting sixth and seventh in the East.
The Nets remain heavy betting favorites to emerge from the East. That is clearly dependent on the good health of their three superstars, because we know the Bucks can hang with two of them. Their confidence has clearly grown with two straight wins against Brooklyn, not to mention a season sweep of Philadelphia.
This is not the Milwaukee team that has been stomped out of the playoffs the past two years. Holiday adds another dimension. He is averaging a 21-6-7 on 51/50/75 shooting splits against the Nets this season, and he will not wilt under pressure the way Eric Bledsoe did before him. Few defenders have any chance of locking down Irving, and Holiday is one of them. Just look down the stretch of both wins over the path few days for evidence. He could also give Harden fits. He just can't stop Harden and Irving at the same time.
Maybe no team can. Oddsmakers seem to think so, but Brooklyn's health is no guarantee. Harden has twice aggravated the hamstring injury he initially suffered on March 31. The setbacks leave his status for the start of the playoffs in jeopardy. Anything less than full strength against Milwaukee is a problem. That includes Irving and Durant, who have missed 54 games combined in a physically and mentally taxing year.
Durant may be the most unstoppable offensive force of his generation, but the Nets have no defensive answer for Antetokounmpo. He can get to the rim at will, too quick for DeAndre Jordan, too strong for anyone else, and he even threw in four 3-pointers for good measure in Tuesday's win. His is a neutralizing force few teams can flex opposite Durant, just as Holiday can combat Irving in ways rarely ever seen.
Middleton is quietly enjoying a career year, despite his first absence from the All-Star Game in three seasons. He too can be a menace defensively. His playmaking has improved, and he is shooting a blistering 42.5% from 3-point range — a top-10 clip among NBA players who attempt five per game.
Lineups featuring Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Middleton are outscoring opponents by 12.1 points per 100 possessions, operating at league-best levels on both ends, per Cleaning the Glass. That is one point shy of the scoring differential when Durant, Irving and Harden share the floor — in nearly 1,400 more possessions. That figure dips to +10.4 points per 100 possessions when Harden doesn't share the court with his costars.
The combined forces of Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Middleton, along with a few roster upgrades on the margins, make Brooklyn's third star the X-factor in a should-be series. This is why the Nets pulled the trigger on a trade that cost them Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen. That puts an awful lot of pressure on Harden, who has been uncomfortable in that role even when playing at full capacity in his playoff career.
This is the problem Milwaukee poses after two straight wins knocked Brooklyn from the top seed and all but locked in an Eastern Conference semifinals slug-fight. The Nets needed those games and lost them. They have one card left to play, and they desperately need that, too, because we forgot about the Bucks.
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