The second round of the NBA playoffs kicks off today with what might end up being the best series of these playoffs. The Bucks of Milwaukee will visit Brooklyn to take on the Nets in a matchup of high-powered, star-studded teams that have their eyes set on the ultimate prize. To keep those hopes alive, they’ll have to get through each other. For Brooklyn, the recipe is relatively simple – let your stars cook and hope you can eke out just enough from the role players and the defense to best the Bucks. For Milwaukee, there’s a bit more complexity here. Can their defense step up in a big way? Will we see the Holiday difference? Is Khris Middleton ready to get the last laugh? To get ready for the series, let’s run through some keys to the series, starting with some of the obvious points.
1. Giannis’s Offensive Domination
In three games against the Nets this season, Giannis averaged 39.7 points. He also pulled down 10.7 rebounds per game, finishing with two double-doubles in three tries. Throw in the fifteen total assists, and you’ve got yourself a pretty good trio of games. By BasketballReference’s Game Score stat, Antetokounmpo’s first and second games against the Nets were his fourth and fifteenth best individual efforts of the season (he made sixty-one appearances). Only the Pelicans and Wizards also allowed two top-fifteen games. This is a team that he can dominate, and the Bucks’ chances rely on him being the best player on the floor like he was when he out-dueled KD in Milwaukee just one month ago. On a court full of stars, Giannis can (and should) rise above the rest. The Nets simply don’t have the tools to stop him; it’s time for him to put the first postseason stamp on his legacy.
2. Brooklyn’s Big 3
The Nets have yet play the Bucks with their full complement of stars, who only saw the court together eight times before the postseason. The team still managed to produce a historically great offense. The obvious question – what does that mean for the Nets’ ceiling now that everyone is back?
One might assume that the Nets are simply too overpowering when everyone is healthy. Kevin Durant might be the smoothest and most unstoppable scorer in the league. James Harden is an offensive force with production that belongs in the upper echelon of league history. Kyrie Irving is one of the most skilled scorers and playmakers in the world. In following this idea, we get to this point – they were so explosive with one or two of those guys, they must be unstoppable with all three. There is certainly some truth to that. Here are various offensive rating numbers (points scored per 100 possessions) for Brooklyn –
Regular Season Total: 117.3
Playoffs Total: 128.0
Durant and Irving minutes (regular season): 120.6
Durant and Harden minutes (regular season): 122.1
Harden and Irving minutes (regular season): 118.9
All three (regular season): 119.6
We can leave it there and get the idea. The seemingly obvious is true – Brooklyn’s offense is better when more of their best players are on the court, even if the massive jump we see in their playoff numbers likely has quite a bit to do with a small sample size against the depleted Celtics. This is a team that can score, score, score, and then score some more just for good measure. That’s the main takeaway. We can discuss Holiday on Harden/Kyrie, Giannis on KD, Tucker on Harden/Kyrie, and more, but the simple reality is that the Nets are going to get theirs offensively.
So, can the Bucks keep up? That leads right in to our third and fourth keys.
3. Milwaukee’s Playoff Offense (and Brooklyn’s Defense)
Let’s start with the Bucks’ offense. It hasn’t been particularly pretty under the bright lights in the past. In 2019, the Bucks scored 2.8 points less per 100 possessions in the playoffs than they did in the regular season. Last year, they managed to do the exact same thing. But now Jrue Holiday is here. And Bryn Forbes and Bobby Portis. Eric Bledsoe is gone, and so are all the 6’9″ Europeans with subpar athleticism and terrible playoff shooting. Yet the Bucks’ offensive rating in the first round was 1.5 points worse than it was in the regular season.
That likely had more to do with the matchup – and some luck – than anything else. The Bucks and Heat played a grind of a series, and it makes sense that Milwaukee scored a little less than they did during the regular season, when they were more often able to play at a frenetic, free-flowing pace. The other good sign before we even talk about the Nets is three-point shooting. Below we have 3PT% numbers from the Bucks since 2019:
Even in years past where Milwaukee was far worse from deep as a team, they never saw a drop of more than 2% on their three-point efficiency once the playoffs hit. There’s simply no way that the 6% drop we’re currently looking at is maintained. The shooters will hit their shots, and they’ll likely do it a rate even higher than 39% given how poorly they shot against the Heat. The Law of Averages almost always wins. Throw in Giannis’s matchup advantage and Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton (who we’ll get to later), and the Bucks have plenty to feel good about against what is a terrible Brooklyn defense.
The Nets finished 22nd in the league in defensive efficiency, and they backed up their reputation by allowing the Celtics to score nearly 116 points per 100 possessions in the first round. For reference, Boston scored almost a full three points less per 100 during the regular season, when they had Jaylen Brown and weren’t running out a skeleton crew led by Jayson Tatum. This happened despite the Celtics shooting just 35% from three during the first round, which was the regular season mark achieved by the Spurs (24th in 3PT%). This is not a good defensive team in any way, shape, or form, and that’s why they finished seventh in point differential despite boasting the league’s best offense. Milwaukee is going to be able to score, which means the real key might be their defense.
4. Bucks’ Defense
You don’t stop Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving, but you can limit to them. The degree to which Milwaukee does might decide the series, as they are far better suited to win games defensively than Brooklyn is. The Bucks held the Heat to an insane 95.4 points per 100 possessions in the first round. That’s almost 33 points less than the Nets were dropping on the Celtics. They rattled Miami’s stars, took many of their role players out of the equation, and left Eric Spoelstra on the ground with his shoes untied just a year after he had done the same to them. Like Brooklyn’s first round scoring, the full extent of the 95.4 number likely has something to do with the small sample size and the opponent (the Heat are far easier to corral than the Nets), but there’s no doubt that Mike Budenholzer and Co. are ready for battle this time around.
Giannis is arguably the best defender in the league at his peak. Jrue Holiday is right up there with him. PJ Tucker is a menace on that side of the ball. Brook Lopez is coming off of a masterpiece of a series against Bam Adebayo, and he can dominate opposing centers when the matchups allow for it. Khris Middleton isn’t particularly great defensively, but it’s impossible to complain about him being your fifth or sixth best defender. He’s perfectly capable of playing solid defense against just about anyone in the league. This is a great defensive team when they’re clicking, and it appears that they are after a season full of adjustments aimed at avoiding another postseason flameout.
The one question is defensive depth with Donte DiVincenzo, a disruptive force who can cause plenty of chaos, out for the rest of the playoffs. One quick three-minute stretch of KD, Harden, and Kyrie attacking a weak link repeatedly could decide a game, and this is where the Bucks have a clear weakness. Those three will roast Bryn Forbes alive whenever he’s on the court. Bobby Portis might not be much better off. Don’t even look to Jeff Teague. That basically leaves Pat Connaughton, who will likely start for DiVincenzo to allow for some flexibility with Tucker available off the bench. While he has his flaws, he’s not a complete liability in the same way Forbes is. These short stints in the middle of the game where the Bucks are going to have to play Forbes or Portis at least a little bit will be crucial. The Nets are all but guaranteed to take advantage offensively. Can Forbes and Portis provide enough offensive impact on the other end to prevent their defense from sinking one or two games?
5. Joe Harris’s Offensive Impact
Harris is an interesting piece here. He’s pretty clearly Brooklyn’s fourth best player as an elite sharpshooter who has seen growth in his ability to score and make plays off the dribble. There’s also still a massive gap between him and that top three. Against the Celtics, he was relatively quiet outside of a 25-point, 7-10 from deep showing in Game 2. He averaged just 10.5 points per game in the other four, though he did hit 43.5% of his triples in those games. Now, he doesn’t necessarily need to score 15-20 points to have a huge impact. When you’re playing alongside three of the best individual offensive players in the league, just being out there as a shooting threat that creates spacing to better allow them to do their work is enough. But a big night from a shooter can be absolutely demoralizing for the opponent, and Harris ripping off a bunch of threes makes it even harder to stick with KD, Harden, and Kyrie. If the Nets struggle a bit early, don’t be surprised if they let Harris loose a little bit more.
6. Khris Middleton
I’ll keep this one simple. Middleton rarely receives the respect his play deserves. There just aren’t many players that can package the ability to average 20, 5, and 5 with the ability to consistently find your own shot and absolutely stroke it from deep. And yet most of what we hear is doubt. Doubt that he deserves a max contract. Doubt that he can be the #2 guy on a championship team. Doubt that he belongs when you start to talk about the best 15-20 players in the league.
Here’s the big stage. Time to prove them wrong.
7. Jrue Holiday’s Playmaking and Shooting
Here’s a fun table –
Player A is Jrue Holiday in the playoffs. Player B is Eric Bledsoe, also exclusively in the playoffs. Then there’s the small matter of Holiday averaging roughly 28 points and 6.5 assists per game during New Orleans’s sweep of the Blazers a few years ago, showcasing his ability to truly dominate a playoff series.
The difference between the two is ridiculous. Bledsoe was a black hole who turned into a shorter Andre Roberson with a little extra playmaking when the playoffs came around. He’s missed 106 playoff threes despite only taking 142, and defenses just left him alone. Somehow, he shot 17 and 21 percent from deep in the series against the Raptors and Heat. That’s almost impossibly bad. Believe it or not, it’s relatively easy to limit a rim-reliant player like Giannis when you can just pretend one-fifth of the offense doesn’t exist. Bledsoe was incapable of getting to the rim and making plays off the pass with any sort of consistency too; his assist numbers took a regular dive once the postseason started.
That hasn’t been the case for Holiday. He can still make plays for others when the margins shrink. More importantly, he can knock down open threes and get his own look with consistency. Defenses can’t just acknowledge his existence (which is often more than they did with Bledsoe); they have to actively work to limit him as a threat. Having a three-pronged attack with shooters is just a little better than having a two-pronged attack with worse shooters that also happens to be dragged down by an offensively incompetent point guard, and that will help the Bucks avoid cold stretches that could prove fatal against such a great offensive team like the Nets.
8. Brook Lopez and Small Ball
This is another area where DiVincenzo’s absence could potentially loom large. The Bucks now have a lot less flexibility with Lopez. He’s going to need to play big minutes, and it’s essentially down to him and Pat Connaughton for that fifth spot in the closing lineup with Giannis, Khris, Jrue, and, likely, Tucker.
The good thing is that Lopez is coming off a fantastic series where he completely dominated Bam Adebayo. The other good thing is that the Nets don’t exactly have the deepest and most versatile roster in the league. They tend to give plenty of minutes to the likes of Blake Griffin and Nic Claxton, and there’s zero reason to think Lopez can’t hang with those guys from a movement perspective. What happens, though, if Bruce Landry Shamet comes in and pushes KD to the 5 spot? Or if Jeff Green gets healthy and shares the frontcourt with KD? There’s a lot of mobility there, and Lopez, while a great defender, is clearly limited in versatility by his size. He’d survive on Green (and the Bucks will live with leaving Bruce Brown alone in a small-ball lineup), but it’s unlikely that he’s successfully chasing around Shamet or Harris or attempting to guard KD on multiple possessions. It’s a tool Brooklyn might pull out at some point.
On the other end, look for Lopez to feast in the paint. Blake Griffin isn’t scaring anybody as a post defender. Nic Claxton is young. De’Andre Jordan will be a brutal defensive liability. We’ve seen the Bucks start to turn to Lopez as an interior presence far more often this year, and it’s also very possible that he keeps the Nets out of any small ball lineups through his work down there. KD and Green aren’t keeping him away from the rim. The stars will make their mark on this series, but Lopez’s ability to overcome limitations and dictate the proceedings on his own terms will be a massively important side plot.
9. The Supporting Cast Battle
We’ve gone over this for the Bucks to some extent with the quick point on DiVincenzo’s absence. The key for Milwaukee will be getting reliable defensive help from Tucker while squeezing out enough offensive production from Forbes and Portis to avoid their defensive deficiencies becoming fatal. Getting some threes from Connaughton would be huge as well. It’s worth noting here that DiVincenzo has really struggled to be a positive offensive player more often than not this year. While the depth is taking a significant hit, Connaughton could provide a boost in some regards.
For the Nets, you’re just hoping for something positive. Some energy and rim protection from Claxton. Some dunks, playmaking, and signs of life defensively from Griffin. Some Shamet triples. Some defensive impact from Brown, especially on Holiday or Middleton. A return from the injured Green, who can space the floor and play some reliable minutes. You don’t get to match three stars with an elite supporting cast, but you do need these guys to at least play some capable basketball if you’re going to make a deep postseason run.
You would think the Bucks need to have the advantage here. They need Tucker to step up. They need Connaughton to be competent. They need to avoid a big game from any of the guys we mentioned in the previous paragraph. They Nets are top heavy; Milwaukee can’t afford to lose the battle at the bottom.
Let’s stop there. Nine is my favorite number. I won’t make a prediction since my unrelenting Bucks optimism won’t let me say anything other than Bucks in 4 right now. I will say this – enjoy whatever comes. We’ve got three MVPs, three more bonafide studs, Brook, Joe Harris, two coaches with something to prove in Budenholzer and Nash, a regular season series that produced three fantastic games, and fan-filled arenas for a crucial playoff series. It should be a heck of a ride. Go Bucks.
Just kidding. Bucks +165