Game 3, Nets-Bucks, was an all-out assault on the senses, and by the time the game stumbled like an amateur-night drunk into the fourth quarter, it felt like the first team to 80 points would win.
Khris Middleton scored the basket that gave Milwaukee an 80-78 lead with a little more than two minutes to play, but Kevin Durant answered with a tying hoop and then a go-ahead 3 in heavy traffic. It was a chaotic mess from there, with the Bucks regaining the lead and with two huge Brooklyn shots being taken not by Durant or Kyrie Irving, but by Bruce Brown, both misses.
Durant launched a 3-pointer for the tie before the final horn, and it bounced off the back rim and into a Game 4 of an Eastern Conference semifinal that, on paper, suddenly seems like anyone’s ballgame. But the evidence still suggests that Brooklyn should be just fine in this series.
“We didn’t have enough poise,” coach Steve Nash said, “but plenty of stuff we can work on and get better at. … It’s a great opportunity for us to learn and grow from this.”
It’s not clear how much there really was for the Nets to learn from this game, other than the need to slow it down a bit when playing a good team on the road in the playoffs. Oh, and the fact that it is still harder to win a best-of-seven without James Harden than with him.
The Nets were down, 30-11, after one quarter and still were right there to go up, 3-0, in the series. Durant missed 13 of 19 shots through three quarters, 17 of 28 shots in all, and still was right there to send the game into overtime. Of even greater consequence, Joe Harris, who had been lights-out in the postseason, put forth a brutal 37-minute effort, missing 10 of 11 shots and 6 of 7 3-pointers before fouling out. Harris missed an open 19-footer with 52 seconds to go that could have been the difference-maker.
The Bucks needed all of that to keep this series in play. They needed Giannis Antetokounmpo and Middleton to score their first 30 points, and to finish with 68 points and 29 rebounds, just to make Game 4 worth a damn. No other Milwaukee player did much of anything. If the Greek Freak continues his bricklaying ways from the foul line and from behind the 3-point line, where he’s 4-for-32 in the playoffs, it’s hard to see how the Bucks can make it to the Eastern Conference finals.
In the end, the Nets were overdue to play a game like this, a game they were not worthy of winning. Nash promised to pick apart the film in search of Game 4 corrections, assuming he could make it through an entire rerun of this butt-ugly exercise. “It was a great experience for us,” he said, “even if it was a painful one.”
As he waited to do an on-court ESPN interview after the first quarter, Nash looked positively stunned that his high-powered offense had managed to score 11 points. The Nets dominated the second quarter — or, more to the point, Brown dominated the second quarter — to launch the comeback. Brown is a hell of a story, a former G-Leaguer who, at 6-foot-4, has mastered the big man’s art of rolling off of high screens and scoring (usually on floaters) in the lane. He had 10 points and five rebounds in that second quarter alone.
But he got carried away a bit in the closing seconds, and the Nets ended up handing the Bucks a reason to believe they could compete in this series, if nothing else. And yet the plight of Harris might be the best reason to conclude that the Nets will recover from this squandered opportunity.
When Harris is hot, Durant had said, “that unlocks our whole team.” And Harris had been hot. In the Nets’ first seven playoff games, he had made an absurd 51 percent of his 3s. At some moment-of-truth point in Brooklyn’s postseason run, perhaps in the Finals, it seemed likely Harris would end up with the ball and a clear look to do what, say, the John Paxsons and Steve Kerrs had done for the Michael Jordan/Scottie Pippen Bulls — make a shot that helps put a trophy in the case.
Thursday night was not quite Harris’ night, as he finished with the worst plus-minus (minus-11) on the board. It wasn’t anyone’s night on the visiting side. So the Nets lost a game, barely, that they did not deserve to win. It’s hard to picture so many things going wrong for them three more times in this series. In other words, the Nets should be just fine.