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Will the Eastern Conference ever run through Giannis Antetokounmpo's Milwaukee Bucks?

Ben Rohrbach
·4 min read
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The Eastern Conference runs through Kevin Durant now.

As Durant repeatedly rose over defenders to effortlessly unleash a series twine-tickling jumpers on Monday, his Brooklyn Nets felt fine defending Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo with DeAndre Jordan, sagging 15 feet off the NBA’s two-time reigning MVP and daring him to drive. The juxtaposition was jarring.

The last of Durant’s daggers came with 36.8 seconds left, when he stepped into a three-pointer that gave the Nets a 125-123 victory. When it came to winning time, Milwaukee’s hopes hanging on an inbounds play, the Bucks put the game in Khris Middleton’s hands. Antetokounmpo was 40 feet from the rim, defended by James Harden, barely a decoy in the final seconds of a game both teams treated like a playoff precursor.

The result may be a footnote to a 72-game regular season. It could be considered a coin flip in hindsight. Antetokounmpo posted MVP numbers (34 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists). In the box score, he was as productive as Durant (30 points, nine rebounds, six assists) and Harden (34 points, 12 assists, six rebounds). In the context of crunch time, though, it sure felt like Brooklyn’s two former MVPs could get whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, and Antetokounmpo was practically an offensive bystander.

“I know what type of player Kevin Durant is,” Harden told reporters following his second game with the Nets. “He’s one of the best players to ever touch a basketball. It’s God-given, 7-foot, and can basically do everything. For me, it’s not trying to compete with that. It’s allowing Kevin to be the best Kevin he can be.”

With his team trailing 110-107 and 5:12 remaining, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer rested Antetokounmpo in favor of Pat Connaughton for a two-minute stretch that saw four lead changes. When Antetokounmpo returned, his lone shot attempt came on a put-back of a Jrue Holiday miss. The rest was left to Middleton.

Kevin Durant got the best of Giannis Antetokounmpo on Monday night. (Al Bello/Getty Images)
Kevin Durant got the best of Giannis Antetokounmpo on Monday night. (Al Bello/Getty Images)

It was a reminder of Milwaukee’s playoff struggles the past two seasons. Antetokounmpo was met with a wall in the paint, powerless to make opposing defenses pay for disrespecting his shooting range. When an opponent has Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler cooking in the clutch, the Bucks have a closing problem.

And the Nets have the ultimate scoring weapon in Durant, who marries Antetokounmpo’s length with a lethal shooting stroke. We saw how he elevated over LeBron James to clinch back-to-back titles with the Golden State Warriors. Few players are better built to create their own offense in the clutch. His superstar teammates, Harden and Kyrie Irving, are on the short list of players who could challenge him in that regard.

This is a glaring problem for the Bucks’ title shot. The Nets are anything but stout defensively, but that matters little when Antetokounmpo’s effectiveness is limited by a 32-year-old center waiting on the block. Brooklyn will be able to manufacture quality offense in close games. It remains a mystery if Milwaukee can.

It is a testament to Milwaukee’s talent that they were in Monday’s game to the end. Durant brought the fight from the start. Early in the first quarter, he bumped Antetokounmpo after a lob to Jordan and shoved him to the ground in transition. Antetokounmpo still got his, and the trade acquisition of Jrue Holiday provides an alternative crunch-time playmaking option to Middleton dribbling into a jumper. The Bucks were right there.

But the reality is Brooklyn should have the three best closing options in a potential playoff series with Milwaukee, one of whom has a pair of Finals MVP honors to his name. All of which begs the underlying question of Antetokounmpo’s still-young career moving forward: Will the East ever run through his Bucks?

He signed the supermax contract that extends through 2026. Milwaukee mortgaged its future to acquire Holiday, who holds a player option for next season. Middleton is signed through 2024. This is their team, and it is a good one, but the Nets’ trade for Harden tipped the scales. That is, if the Bucks even get that far. Recent iterations of the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat have eliminated Antetokounmpo in the playoffs.

Those teams are not going away. If Antetokounmpo wants to own his conference the way James did before him, he has to be the best closer on the floor, and that is a tall order now that Durant is healthy in Brooklyn.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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