You could tell, watching on television, that Jeff Van Gundy was having some high-definition flashbacks. Maybe during the long TV timeouts the old coach closed his eyes and transported back to old Miami Arena, possibly to old Market Square Arena, maybe to Madison Square Garden itself. This was basketball as a time machine.

“This,” Van Gundy said, “is a rock fight.”

And if there is one man in America qualified to make that assessment for professional basketball playoff games, it is Jeffrey William Van Gundy. And you had to believe that what he was watching — Bucks 86, Nets 83, Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals — looked awfully familiar.

Back in Van Gundy’s salad days, coaching a Knicks team beloved by New York, but reviled just about everywhere else in America, 86-83 would be considered a shootout. Go back and look at some of the scores during the Knicks’ run to the NBA Finals in 1999. New York fell head over heels for a team that won games 78-77 and 77-70 and 79-66.

When Knicks fans of a certain age talk about the good old days those are the good old days.

Of course, it was a different league back then, an entirely different sport, really. The 3-point shot was a nice weapon to have in reserve, not options 1 through 4 on every team. You attempted layups at your own peril, knowing someone was going to send you flying arse over elbows — and the guys with the whistles wouldn’t bail you out.

Nets
PJ Tucker (r.) gets right in the face of Kevin Durant during the second half of the Bucks’ win on Thursday night.
AP

This? This was stunning throwback. This was a shocking turn-back-the clock game. This was one team (the Bucks) that averaged 120 points a game during the regular season, the highest figure in close to two decades. This was another team (the Nets) that can, at any time, drop 140 on you without breaking a sweat.

“These are two elite offensive teams,” Nets coach Steve Nash said, “that played a game in the 80s.”

Plucked right out of the ’90s.

“We got the shots we wanted all night,” said Bruce Brown, the Nets’ forward who nearly was the hero of the night for his team, scoring 16 points. “We just weren’t making them. The whole game.”

The Bucks looked like they were going to spend the night in the freeway passing lane, after they jumped to a 21-point first-quarter lead. The Nets came roaring back — well, they came back at least — to crawl within 45-42 at the half.

And then things really got unsightly.

“Someone,” Nash said, “was going to win ugly.”

How ugly was it? The Nets were stuck at 9 until there were 35.2 seconds left in the first quarter. The Bucks were stuck on 3 — three! — in the second quarter until there was 4:08 left in the period. The game stayed frozen on 76-all for a remarkable 3 minutes and 29 seconds late in the fourth, the Bucks missing six shots and the Nets missing three, turning the ball over twice.

Kevin Durant, of course, tried to wallpaper the misery by stepping up late and hitting three straight clutch shots, the last of which gave the Nets an 83-80 lead — their largest of the night — with 1:23 to go. But that was it for the Nets. The defining sequence was a botched inbounds pass that was capped by a missed Brown drive when the Nets would have been much better served calling time and starting over. It was grisly.

Because of course it was. The whole night was.

“I wish we would’ve made a couple more plays down the stretch,” Durant lamented. “That’s a tough one.”

Said Nash: “It’s interesting we lose a game because of our offense.”

Unlike the old days, this was an outlier, an anomaly, an aberration. These teams weren’t built to play games in the 80s. There are too many guys who are too finely skilled. Durant missed 17 of his 28 shots. Kyrie Irving missed 13 shots. Joe Harris was 1-for-11 from the field, and Harris probably hasn’t gone 1-for-11 since CYO ball. The Bucks shot 38 percent (and 19.4 percent from 3) and won.

“We didn’t make shots,” Nash said. “We had looks we normally make that we just didn’t make.”

The Nets should still be fine, though Sunday’s Game 4 now gets a few extra ounces of intrigue. And the game will be fine. Maybe it’s not a bad thing to throw a good old-fashioned rock fight into the mix in case you get a little too caught up pining for how things used to be. It used to be like this. Every game. Take that as you will.



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