The Brooklyn Nets defeated the visiting Milwaukee Bucks 115-107 at Barclays Center on Saturday, leading 1-0 in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The Nets suffered a huge loss at the beginning as James Harden returned to the locker room because of a hamstring injury in his right leg in less than one minute in the first quarter. But the team still managed to win at home.
"I'm heartbroken for him. I don't know what's going to happen. I don't know if he's playing the next game, if he's out. I have no idea," said Nets head coach Steve Nash after the game.
Harden's absence meant the load on the others had to grow. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving played 40 and 44 minutes respectively, contributing combined 54 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists. Blake Griffin and Joe Harris each had 35 and 34 minutes. Harris drained five triples at 55.6 percent while Griffin scored a double-double of 18 points and 14 rebounds before being fouled out. Even Mike James, who became the surprising replacement of Harden, received 30 minutes on the floor during which he 12 points, seven rebounds and three assists.
Durant was not comfortable facing the defense of P.J. Tucker who stole his ball twice. Shooting 1-4 from the arc was not the best KD could do. The "green Great Wall" made by Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo limited him to 3-8 under the rim. Irving's hands were totally frozen in the last quarter when he went 0-5 on the field.
Nonetheless, the two were 15-26 in the middle range to get 30 points in the least efficient zone of the floor. That's the most lethal part of the Nets' offense, when the team did not have their orchestrator (Harden) to run the game, Durant and Irving could make solutions out of nothing.
By contrast, the Bucks did not have that magic. The whole team shot 6-30 from downtown, which was too worse for their lead in points in the paint (72-48) and second-chance points (20-4) to make up for. Giannis Antetokounmpo put down 34 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and two blocks for the Bucks, which was yet acceptable to the Nets.
Like we mentioned before, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday were supposed to be the Bucks' go-to guys when Antetokounmpo could not destroy the opponent's by himself. However, both Middleton and Holiday were nothing but disappointing shooting 6-23 and 7-19 in field goals. Moreover, the two were 2-12 together from the 3-point line, worse than Antetokounmpo who went 2-5 beyond the arc.
Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer should be held responsible for Saturday's loss as well. The team could have done even better working in the paint. Since Nets head coach Steve Nash did not give DeAndre Jordan even one minute in Game 1, Brook Lopez became the Bucks' biggest advantage on the floor, maybe even bigger than Antetokounmpo.
However, though he went 8-11 to get 19 points and grabbed five offensive rebounds, Lopez only received 27 minutes in the game and the team barely tried any play helping him make isolation play in mismatch. The Nets' biggest guy Griffin had to cover Antetokounmpo, meaning that whoever defended Lopez was undersized, not to mention that Lopez has very solid posting up skills.
Nonetheless, instead of giving Lopez the ball to destroy James, Irving, Harris or Landry Shamet, Holiday and Middleton kept shooting and missing. Antetokounmpo did not make many correct decisions on offense in the second quarter either.
Despite the loss, Game 1 showed the Bucks their physical advantage in this series. They need to make the best use of it. That means Lopez should get a bigger offensive role, especially in the low block; Holiday should charge deeper inside instead of offering covering fire outside; the whole team could go more aggressive on the offensive glass.
Game 2 will take place at Barclays Center again on June 7.