This series seemed like it was done a couple of times, but the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks have given us an equal struggle, which will end tomorrow in Game 7. After six grueling games, which included injured All-Stars, returning All-Stars, superstars ascending to another plane of existence, superstars crumbling under the pressure, and plenty of role players punching up their weight class, how much does either team have left?
Does KD have another career game in him?
After the Nets lost Kyrie Irving for the series in Game 4, Kevin Durant has dragged the Brooklyn Nets offense almost single-handedly… but not really. Durant pulled off the best game of his life in Game 5, putting up 49 points, 17 rebounds, and 10 assists and crushing the Bucks' hopes for an easy road win. Even in their loss in Game 6, Durant still had 32 points on 15-for-30 shooting with 11 rebounds. The difference was Durant found little support from what remains of the Nets.
Jeff Green and Blake Griffin, two of the most consistent Nets this series, combined for just 17 points. James Harden, in his second game back from a strained hamstring, added 16 points, way better than his five-point output in Game 5, but still not enough. Joe Harris had nine points on nine shots in what was, sadly, his best game for the series.
You can immediately list KD for 30 points on a hyper-efficient shooting clip for a game of this magnitude. The question for the Nets is where they’re going to find more. Do uncles Jeff and Blake have another stellar game in them? Can Harris, in what could potentially be the final game of the season, find his shot? Is Harden going to feel better with two games under his belt and provide even 70 percent of his usual production? Or is it time for another KD mega explosion? All bets are off in a Game 7.
The good, the Bucks, and the ugly
For all the panic that has come out of Milwaukee this series, they still have a shot at finally breaking into the Eastern Conference Finals.
More than any team except maybe the Utah Jazz, the Bucks have had to reckon with their team composition, their stars' limitations, and their coach's system. With a win in Game 7, they could continue their path to vindication, and coach Mike Budenhozer keeps his job.
Game 5 saw plenty of character analysis on Giannis Antetokounmpo. The two-time MVP shriveled in his chance to duel another all-time great in KD. If Durant reached basketball nirvana, Antetokounmpo was sent to basketball purgatory. And from purgatory, Antetokounmpo emerged in Game 6, showing that he rediscovered himself. He didn't try to do too many isolations and didn't take any 3s. He didn’t try to be like the superstars we were accustomed to. Giannis mostly dominated in the paint, attacking in transition, and running into every gap the defense allowed. He finished with 30 points on 12-for-20 shooting with 17 rebounds.
Another boon for the Bucks was Khris Middleton playing his best postseason game ever, putting up 38 points and serving as the extinguisher to any Nets run in Game 6. Jrue Holiday also had a career game with 21 points, eight rebounds, four assists, and five steals.
In this reality with Harden hobbling and Kyrie out, the Bucks hands down have the better talent. It's going to be about extracting that talent again and maintaining leads. The Bucks have been up by at least 15 points in each of their last three games, had they just held on in Game 5, they might already have booked a ticket to the conference finals.
The Bucks direly need to stay away from a close game. In a tie game with two minutes left, the Nets have the smoothest scorer in league history on their side, while the Bucks have an MVP who struggles at the free throw line and two All-Star level perimeter players who are nowhere near Durant’s level as a shot-creator. The Bucks have to overwhelm the Nets.
What’s at stake?
Whoever wins this series will be favored in the next round. The Philadelphia 76ers' best player is playing through a meniscus tear. The Atlanta Hawks are great but aren’t on the same talent level as the Bucks or Nets. This series might just decide who moves on to the finals. That would be the first finals appearance for the Nets since 2002, for the Bucks since 1974.
The Nets super team experiment hasn't exactly panned out the way they expected it to, but getting out of this round might just allow Irving to return and Harden to regain form. They could still be the best team in the playoffs, they just need to get over this Game 7 hump.
The Bucks have been riding the middle for much of their franchise’s existence – whether that be the middle of the regular standings or ending the playoffs in the middle rounds. Perhaps more than any star left in the playoffs, Giannis has the most to prove and most to gain with a trip to the finals.