Nets-Bucks Second Round Preview: How will Brooklyn slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo & Co.?

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Nets - Bucks 2021 NBA playoffs preview treated image
Nets - Bucks 2021 NBA playoffs preview treated image

The Brooklyn Nets’ Second Round series against the Milwaukee Bucks feels like the ultimate heavyweight bout.

Brooklyn, of course, is built around the big three of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. Milwaukee sports their own big three with two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo as well as former All-Stars Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday.

The Bucks and Nets, along with the Philadelphia 76ers, were in a class of their own in the Eastern Conference during the regular season. Both teams have the star power, but they also have the versatility to play different styles and feature interesting matchups across the board. The Bucks won two of the three games against the Nets in the regular season, but Harden did not play in the two losses in May.

Brooklyn is coming off a 4-1 series win against the Boston Celtics in the first round. In the series, Brooklyn’s big three was great, averaging 85.2 points combined. This included 104 points on Sunday night.

The Nets were good enough defensively, and great on offense. Using a heavy dose of isolations, three-pointers from Joe Harris and solid passing, the Nets lead all playoff teams in offensive efficiency (128 points per 100 possessions) currently. They face a Top 10 regular season defense in Milwaukee that took it up a notch in the First Round. The Bucks swept the Miami Heat in four games, holding the Heat to just 95.4 points per 100 possessions.

Size Disparity

Will we see DeAndre Jordan? The big man does provide the best size battle with the likes of Milwaukee’s seven-footer Brook Lopez, but he hasn’t played in 12 of the last 16 games, including all five postseason games.

With 6-foot-10 Blake Griffin playing just 20.4 minutes in the postseason and the 6-foot-11 Nicolas Claxton averaging 13.2 minutes, Brooklyn has run many lineups where Durant has been the center by size. 6-foot-4 guard Bruce Brown has been the nominal center on offense due to his limited perimeter shooting ability.

The Bucks will probably downsize at times to be able to switch everything against the Nets. Reserve PJ Tucker will likely replace Lopez, allowing the Bucks to switch everything on defense and keep the Nets in front of them.

This is where the Bucks might miss point guard Donte DiVincenzo. The Nets will look to attack 6-foot-2 backup guard Bryn Forbes on switches at times. The Bucks will probably look toward using the 6-foot-5 Pat Connaughton, who is much sturdier as a defender in these late game lineups, though he is a less threatening shooter in terms of the respect he garners from opposing teams compared to Forbes. DiVincenzo offered the best of both worlds with quality defense, perimeter shooting, and secondary playmaking.

Rebounding

Though I sound like a broken record, rebounding is an important factor in this series. Milwaukee finished just 13th in offensive rebound rate during the season, but they mashed the Miami Heat on the offensive glass. Milwaukee out-rebounded Miami 236-169 in the sweep and had 61 offensive boards in four games.

Rebounding was an issue for the Nets during the regular season. They faced the third-best offensive rebounding team in the NBA in the Celtics. Boston dominated the offensive glass, but Brooklyn was able to make up for that by giving the Celtics a dose of their own medicine. Having a spread court with perfect spacing allowed Brooklyn to attack the boards on offense. Irving had 10 offensive rebounds in the series and the diminutive Brown had eight.

Defense

Milwaukee hunted mismatches relentlessly in their first round battle with the Heat. Miami’s weak links on defense such as Duncan Robinson and Goran Dragic were attacked constantly as the Bucks forced Miami to switch those players on Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday.

Milwaukee will likely continue what Boston did as Jayson Tatum often sought out Irving and Griffin on switches in his 50-point masterpiece against the Nets in Game 3. The Bucks will certainly look for those mismatches with Antetokounmpo and Middleton in isolation or in the post. With forward Jeff Green currently out due to a plantar fascia strain in his left foot, that leaves Durant as perhaps the only legitimate defender with size to guard Antetokounmpo, depending on when Green returns.

Antetokounmpo was a tough cover against Brooklyn as he averaged 39.6 points against the Nets in the three regular season matchups. This included a season-high 49 points in May. One saving grace was that the Bucks star relied heavily on outside shooting. He took 28 threes over the three games, which is over five attempts more than he takes per game.

Final Statement

The Nets will get what they want offensively at every stop. With three players like Harden, Irving and Durant, they will score at will against any defense. Harris’ shooting ability also keeps the defense honest and provides the spacing that makes this roster even more deadly.

Facing a Bucks team that is good on both ends of the floor is a good challenge. Can the Nets defend with enough consistency? Defense seemed to come and go against Boston in the first round. It will need to be more consistent as the Nets progress in the postseason.