For Brooklyn, the Celtics were just a teaser. Now comes the real test.
The Nets dispatched Boston in a gentleman’s sweep, and find Milwaukee — a team they lost the season series to — waiting in the Eastern Conference semifinals. It’s a matchup of star-studded Big 3s that some say is more befitting of the NBA Finals.
“They’re a great team and they’re tough to deal with,” Kevin Durant said. “We respect everybody on their team. We know exactly what they bring to the table. We’re just going to go out there and have fun playing the game of basketball. We’re going to challenge each other. You know they’re going to challenge us and vice versa. May the best team win.”
Philadelphia won the East’s top seed, but the Nets are favored to win the title and — especially with 76ers star Joel Embiid suffering a torn meniscus — Milwaukee is arguably their biggest challenge in the East, starting Saturday (7:30 p.m., TNT).
The Bucks have been resting and waiting after sweeping defending conference champ Miami. And they did it with the most effective defensive performance in a series in the past five postseasons, led by two-time reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“I think it’s meant for a lot of the best players in the league to go up against one another and show why we a-e who we are,” Kyrie Irving said. “Mutual respect on both sides for what we’re capable of doing talent-wise.
“We obviously know it’s going to be some adjustments made on the fly when we’re going up against each other. … Basketball is basketball. Like I said, once we step on the floor, it’s who can score the most and get the most stops.”
Those Bucks players include defensive glove Jrue Holiday and forward Khris Middleton. But any discussion starts with Antetokounmpo.
The Nets lost the season series 2-1 and couldn’t slow the Greek Freak. He averaged 39.7 points, 10.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists.
“He’s long, athletic, plays hard — he cares about his teammates, he cares about winning. You put that combination together, you make a tough player,” Durant said. “And his game is expanding. He’s hitting the turnaround J now, he’s shooting 3s, so we’ve got our work cut out for us. He’s a two-time MVP, defensive player of the year for a reason. So we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
According to Nets coach Steve Nash, that challenge isn’t going to come down to tactics, but mental toughness.
“He’s right,” James Harden agreed. “It’s not going to come down to X’s and O’s and plays and different schemes. At the end of the day, after Game 1 and Game 2, we’re going to know each other’s plays. So it’s about details and the small things, the box outs, who can dive on the basketball on the floor, who’s going to make winning plays. Whoever does is going to have a chance of winning.”
It should be noted, with all three regular-season matchups decided by a total of just 11 points, the Bucks had their three stars for all of them. The Nets didn’t have their Big 3 for any of them.
Irving missed the Jan. 18 victory, while Harden was hamstrung for the May 2 and May 4 defeats at Fiserv Forum.
“I can just remember sitting out those two games we had in Milwaukee, and we fought, we fought, we had them down,” Harden said. “It was close games possession-by-possession, like a playoff atmosphere. So we can expect that same kind of intensity, or even another level.”
Brooklyn started DeAndre Jordan against Antetokounmpo in the May 2 matchup, and the Greek Freak scored 49 while Jordan is now out of the rotation. Jeff Green started two days later, but he’s injured. Durant and Blake Griffin are the only other Nets who spent any significant time guarding Antetokounmpo, and now they have Nic Claxton.
Nash has a lot to think about.
“Personally, I’m thinking about them right now, the matchups and things they do on both ends of the ball. Obviously, we know how good they are on both sides and their individual talents,” Harden said. “Thursday we go watch film and prepare.”