Brooklyn led by as many as 49 points and never trailed as they hammered Milwaukee 125-86 to take a commanding 2-0 series lead.
The problem remains the same. Even without James Harden, how exactly do you stop both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant? The short answer is: you can’t. At least not if you’re the Milwaukee Bucks.
They are two supreme one-vs-one killers, that much is true. But they are also savvy and unselfish enough to realise when the Bucks have overstretched to stop them. That’s bad news for Milwaukee. A few swings of the ball later there’s Joe Harris – a 47.5 per cent three-point shooter – wide open in the corner. Your double teams are no good here, sir. Neither is your help defense.
Much of the opening period was defined by the Blake Griffin on Giannis Antetokounmpo match up. One was widely regarded as washed up when he joined the Nets during the buyout period – when the Detroit Pistons are literally paying you not to play for them you know something is up.
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The other is the reigning two-time MVP. You’d have thought pitting the former against the latter was a death wish.
This is just a ridiculous basketball play, ending in an old school Blake Griffin poster.
How do you stop it? pic.twitter.com/kilge12nOS
It turns out it was no sweat at all for Griffin, as Giannis repeatedly settled for contested jumpers over a player that apparently couldn’t (or simply wouldn’t) dunk for half a season.
As committed and as robust as Griffin’s defense was – he deserves all the credit in the world for that, as a player without much of a reputation on that end – it seemed as though the Bucks star was playing within himself against an opponent he should have been testing at every opportunity.
Whether it’s down to the Greek Freak’s ongoing struggles at the free-throw line (2-7 this game, 0-3 the last) or not, it was a fundamentally strange experience watching a player so dominant around the rim resort to an ill-conceived Chris Paul impression.
You know, the point guard who is a foot smaller and a decade older.
At which point, enter the most unguardable man in the NBA. Durant eased through the game in second gear and still had 32 points, four rebounds and six assists on 67 per cent shooting both from the field and three-point range. That’s without playing at all in the fourth quarter.
His early double crossover on Giannis set the tone. It seemed to say ‘You might well be the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year… I’m still Kevin Durant’. Possibly with a few well-timed expletives. From that point on it was hard to imagine anything other than the rollicking that ensued.
Only Kevin Durant could see Giannis guarding him, lick his lips and then do this 😤 pic.twitter.com/6PNBpJA3Hn
He was, of course, ably accompanied by Kyrie Irving, a hip-shaking, body-feinting menace who can do things with a basketball that most can only dream of. He finished with a similarly effortless 22 points, five rebounds and six assists, as well as draining half of his eight attempts from deep.
The Nets were up 17 after the first – a commanding lead but not an insurmountable one. The opening possession of the second quarter ended with Brook Lopez’s best Dirk Nowitzki-esque one-legged fall-away. They might as well have ended the game then and there.
All Mike Budenholzer’s offense could conjure up was a contested midrange pullup time and time again, the least efficient shot you can create. It was telling that Khris Middleton, a comfortable 20-point per game scorer through the regular season, started this match 0-8 and ended it 7-20.
He’s the closest thing the Bucks have to Durant. As it turns out he’s not close at all. Whatever Achilles injury KD might have had.
Kevin Durant is unguardable. pic.twitter.com/N0OAW2FlFQ
Even with Durant and Irving on the bench and Giannis and Lopez on the floor against a Nets’ lineup consisting of Griffin at center and four guards, the Bucks still couldn’t make a dent with their huge size and strength advantage.
Instead it was the Nets, quicker, bouncier, more determined, keeping the initiative. Without their two stars they increased the lead by three points. Bruce Brown cleaned the glass like a seven footer through attitude and determination alone. Quite literally, as both he and Lopez had two offensive boards each after 15 minutes.
It didn’t matter that Mike James was taking the minutes of their third superstar James Harden; they were still trouncing Milwaukee as though they were a hapless lottery team. The 24-point half-time lead tied their second-biggest in franchise playoff history. Not bad for Game 2 in a Conference Semifinals against a fancied championship contender.
In the second half, nothing changed. Brooklyn’s mesmeric ball movement led to Harris wide open from the top of the arc and a swish straight out of the gate. In response, Antetokounmpo pulled up from the opposite spot on the floor with 18 seconds still left on the shot clock, no pass in sight, and bricked it. The Bucks started a shootout with a knife, fork and rusty spoon. The Nets had a heavy duty arsenal to make your average Call of Duty streamer blush.
By the time the fourth quarter rolled around the lead was 30 and Durant was already discussing Game 3 with Harden while resting on the bench. With nine minutes to go there was only one Antetokounmpo on the floor and his name was Thanasis; the white flag in human form well and truly flown.
That this performance came without Harden should serve as a warning not just to Milwaukee – those brooms are coming – but the Sixers, Hawks and teams remaining in the Western Conference. Make no mistake about it. Brooklyn are the team to beat.
At times it felt like Durant and the rest of his teammates were shooting into the Atlantic Ocean. Meanwhile the Bucks were trying to flush a bowling ball down the toilet. If that sounds like hyperbole just know that at one point in the fourth the lead was 49.
The fact the final score, 125 – 86, and margin of victory, a slightly more respectful 39, occurred without Brooklyn’s second best player suggest this series is over before it has even begun. You can only hope Giannis and the Bucks have something to say about that at home in Milwaukee on Thursday night.
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