Dollars bring it to Nets, and they’re in store for more

Don’t forget the Milwaukee Bucks.

Giannis Antetokounmpo recorded another monster outing against Kevin Durant in Tuesday’s 124-118 win over the Brooklyn Nets. The two-time defending MVP Bucks (41-24) drew in a loss to the Nets (43-23) and clinched the tiebreaker, bolstering the image of the Conference playoffs. Is two weeks from the end.

Two days after defeating Durant 49-42 in another victory in Milwaukee, Antetokounmpo amassed 36 points, 12 rebounds and four assists, taking his season average against Brooklyn to 40 points per game. Enough to resist 70 points combined from Durant and Kyrie Irving on Tuesday, in part thanks to 23 points each from Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton. Brooklyn’s James Harden (hamstring) missed a 14th straight outing.

The first two meetings between the Bucks and the Nets came down to one possession. If we’ve learned anything from their three regular season games, a best-of-seven streak between them will be a heavyweight fight. Still, we still don’t know what to expect or who to favor, as Brooklyn has only fielded Durant, Irving and Harden together seven times all season – not once against Milwaukee and not at all since February 5.

Giannis Antetokounmpo (left) flexed his muscles against the Brooklyn Nets. (Stacy Revere / Getty Images)

Here’s what we know: The No.1 seed in the East is a huge advantage.

Given the tiebreaker, the Philadelphia 76ers (44-21) now essentially hold a three-game seeded advantage over the Nets and Bucks with a seven-game cupcake schedule the rest of the time. It would take a massive Sixers collapse for Brooklyn and Milwaukee not to land on the same side of the medium.

This is brutal news for both teams. Not only does the No.1 seed mean not having to face Brooklyn or Milwaukee in the second round of the playoffs, it most likely means avoiding the two reigning conference finalists in the first round. The Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics occupy sixth and seventh place in the East.

The nets remain heavy betting favorites emerge from the east. It clearly depends on how healthy their three superstars are, as we know the Bucks can hang out with two of them. Their confidence has clearly increased with back-to-back wins over Brooklyn, not to mention a season-long sweep from Philadelphia.

It’s not the Milwaukee team that has been left out of the playoffs for the past two years. Holidays add another dimension. He’s averaging 21-6-7 in 51/50/75 shooting games against the Nets this season, and he won’t flex under pressure like Eric Bledsoe has before him. Few defenders have even the slightest chance of locking down Irving, and Holiday is one of them. Just look at the stretch of the two wins on the way a few days for proof. He could also give Harden adjustments. He just can’t stop Harden and Irving at the same time.

Maybe no team can. Bettors seem to think so, but Brooklyn’s health is not guaranteed. Harden has twice worsened the hamstring injury he initially suffered on March 31. The setbacks leave his status for the start of the playoffs in jeopardy. Anything not at full strength against Milwaukee is a problem. That includes Irving and Durant, who missed 54 games combined in a physically and mentally grueling year.

Durant may be the most unstoppable offensive force of his generation, but the Nets have no defensive response for Antetokounmpo. He can hit the rim at will, too fast for DeAndre Jordan, too strong for anyone else, and he even threw four 3s for good measure in Tuesday’s win. It’s a neutralizing force that few teams can deal with Durant, just as Holiday can fight Irving in ways rarely seen.

Middleton is quietly enjoying a year of career, despite his first absence from the All-Star Game in three seasons. He too can be a defensive threat. His way of playing has improved and he’s shooting a record 42.5% from a distance of 3 points – a top 10 among NBA players attempting five per game.

Line-ups including Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Middleton topped opponents by 12.1 points per 100 possessions, running at the league’s best levels on both sides, by Cleaning the glass. That’s a point less than the scoring differential when Durant, Irving and Harden split the floor – in nearly 1,400 more possessions. That number drops to +10.4 points per 100 possessions when Harden is not sharing the field with his teammates.

The combined strengths of Antetokounmpo, Holiday, and Middleton, along with a few sideline roster upgrades, make Brooklyn’s third star the X-factor in a must-see series. That’s why the Nets pulled the trigger on a trade that cost them Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen. This puts enormous pressure on Harden, who has been uncomfortable in the role even playing at full capacity in his playoff career.

That’s the problem Milwaukee poses after two straight wins knocked out Brooklyn from the top seed and practically got locked into a slug fight in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Nets needed these games and lost them. They have one card left to play, and they desperately need it too, because we’ve forgotten about the Bucks.

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