The Milwaukee Bucks spent the better part of the past year trying to ensure this season’s playoff run would go differently than the ones they made in the previous two.
But after getting obliterated 125-86 by the James Harden-less Brooklyn Nets in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series Monday night in New York, the Bucks head home for Game 3 on Thursday knowing that they’re now two losses away from a third straight disastrous end to their season.
Yet, despite the situation, Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo said he’s not feeling any differently than he did when Milwaukee was en route to a sweep of the Miami Heat in the first round.
“It’s easy,” Antetokounmpo said, when asked how he could keep his teammates from getting down after falling into a 2-0 hole. “That’s what I do.
“I don’t get too high, I don’t get too low. After the Miami series, we were up 4-0, and coming to this series, I wasn’t high. Now that we’re down 2-0, I’m not low. I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing, keep trusting my work, keep trusting my teammates, keep believing in the team, keep believing in the habits we’ve built all year, and hopefully in Game 3 we get a win.”
Blake Griffin and Mike James after Harden exited 47 seconds in with hamstring tightness — the expectation by some was the Bucks would even the series with Harden watching from the sideline.
Instead, the Nets demolished the Bucks from the start, taking a 36-19 advantage after one quarter and leading wire-to-wire in the biggest win in franchise history — and the worst postseason loss in Mike Budenholzer’s three years as Milwaukee’s coach.
The Bucks looked discombobulated from practically the opening tip, settling for one jumper after another instead of attacking the paint — which, in turn, allowed the Nets to get into a rhythm at the other end.
It proved a fatal combination for Milwaukee.
“There’s certain places we want to attack, certain guys we want to attack with,” Budenholzer said. “[But] we just didn’t play well overall. First quarter, the whole game. … I think we’ve got to play better from start to end.”
Even with Harden not on the court, the Bucks couldn’t do anything to stop Brooklyn’s remaining stars, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. They combined to outscore Milwaukee 22-19 in the first quarter, and Durant, in particular, got whatever he wanted throughout the game, finishing with 32 points on 12-for-18 shooting to go with six assists in 33 minutes.
But they weren’t alone.
James again impressed with 10 points off the bench. Bruce Brown, who entered the starting lineup in place of Harden, scored 13 points to go along with six rebounds, four assists and no turnovers. Landry Shamet made three 3-pointers in 16 minutes off the bench.
“I liked our attention to detail,” Durant said. “We didn’t get a lot of plays perfect, but we made second and third efforts. They didn’t destroy us on offensive rebounds so that showed we were boxing out.
“For the most part, we just did what we were supposed to do at home. Now we have to see if this game can travel on the road for us, and we gotta stay locked in.”
Entering the series, Milwaukee’s biggest advantage seemed to be inside, where both Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez are significantly bigger than the defenders the Nets have on them — especially with Brooklyn playing small and using either Griffin or Nicolas Claxton at center.
But after the Bucks got eight offensive rebounds in the first quarter of Game 1, the Nets have effectively walled off the paint since. Milwaukee had only 11 offensive rebounds in Game 2 — and barely edged Brooklyn overall in rebounding (44-42). Milwaukee had 20 fewer points in the paint in Game 2 than it did in Game 1, while committing 16 turnovers that led to 23 Brooklyn points.
Khris Middleton followed up his clunker in Game 1 with another in Game 2; he shot just 7-for-20 from the field and missed all six shots he took in that fateful first quarter. And after getting to the basket repeatedly in Game 1, Antetokounmpo had a fairly pedestrian line — certainly by his standards — of 18 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 turnovers (he also went 2-for-7 from the foul line) in 33 minutes.
“I missed a couple I thought I could’ve had, forced a couple ones I shouldn’t have,” said Middleton, who is now 13-for-43 shooting in this series. “Just have to find a better rhythm, better shot selection, I think.”
Combine that with the Nets shooting 52% overall — and an absurd 50% (21-of-42) from 3-point range — while Milwaukee shot just 8-for-27 (29.6 percent) from deep, and it’s easy to see how Brooklyn ran the Bucks out of Barclays Center so thoroughly.
“I think for us, we saw them hitting shots and we just became a little bit too selfish, and we tried to do it ourselves,” Bucks guard Jrue Holiday said. “We had some shots in the paint, but they were tough shots, contested by two, sometimes three people.
“I feel like when we get in there, we have to try to spray it out and get those wide-open 3s. We didn’t shoot that well from 3, either, and that’s probably because we didn’t have that many wide-open ones, and they did. We just have to be able to play off the pass a little bit better.”
Milwaukee will need to do many things a whole lot better in Game 3. If not, this series will quickly be headed the same way Milwaukee’s first-round series against Miami did — only this time, the Bucks will be on the receiving end of a four-game sweep.
“It’s an opportunity,” Antetokounmpo said. “At the end of the day, we have to take care of business, and take it a game at a time. I do not want to hear we got to win two at home. We got to win one at home. We’ve got to win the first game. We’ve got to get Game 3 and try to give everything we can to get that one, and then Game 4 try to do the same thing. But we have to focus on Game 3 right now.”