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As a press box veteran of the ALCS of 2004, when the Yankees made history by blowing a 3-0 series lead over the supposedly haunted Red Sox, nothing could ever again shock me in a best-of-seven world. Surprise me? Certainly. Shock me? No chance.
In the hours before Game 5 in Brooklyn, the notion of the Boston Celtics overcoming their 3-1 deficit and winning three straight sudden-death games to upset the Nets put that fact to the test. Outmanned even when healthy, the Celtics were banged up. They didn’t resemble a winning postseason team all year and, deep down, a summer vacation might have seemed a more appealing option than extending this first-round series any longer than it had to be extended.
Boston needed Jayson Tatum to score 50 points to win one of the first four games. Was Tatum capable of dropping another 45 or 50 in Barclays Center on Tuesday night? Could the Celtics somehow put forth the effort necessary to steal a road game and force Kyrie Irving and friends to endure another hostile night in TD Garden?
Yes and yes. But as much as the Nets said all the right things about focusing on the Celtics, and finishing off a potentially dangerous opponent, they are human. And it is human to look ahead at the far more forbidding opponent lurking around the bend.
In other words, the Nets were probably already thinking about the Milwaukee Bucks. They just weren’t allowed to say so for public consumption.
The Nets do have some postseason history with the Bucks, beating them in six first-round games in the Jason Kidd era. But when I think of Nets-Bucks, I default to my days as a New Jersey fan and college kid in 1984, watching with extreme frustration as the refs gave Darryl Dawkins no respect — at least in my teenage mind — during Milwaukee’s conference semifinal victory. That won’t be a problem this time around for Nets fans. Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving are long established stars who have earned the benefit of the postseason whistle.
Assuming Brooklyn wins just one more game against Boston, starting with Tuesday night’s Game 5, Durant/Harden/Irving vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo/Khris Middleton/Jrue Holiday should be one hell of a series. The Nets won the first regular-season matchup at home without Irving. The Bucks won the last two games in Milwaukee, over three days, while Brooklyn played without Harden.
There’s no point talking anymore about the Big 3’s lack of court time together (only a dozen games, including the postseason, entering Game 5 against Boston), because the three stars have played a combined 35 NBA seasons, and they’ve already figured out how to take control of a playoff series. In Game 4, they beat the Celtics with Durant and Irving combining for 81 points, and with Harden dishing for 18 assists. Their coach, Steve Nash, said he saw a willingness to give up the ball quickly and often that he didn’t see in his team’s loss in Game 3.
“It’s not going to be the Princeton offense,” he said, referring to constant screening and backdoor cuts. But to beat Milwaukee, the Nets will need to move the ball as if the damn thing is on fire. The Bucks are a much better team than the Celtics, and if we had to make one last point about chemistry, it would be to mention that Antetokounmpo and Middleton have played together since 2013.
The Bucks are also going to be well-rested, having finished their sweep of the Miami Heat on Saturday. “This ain’t the bubble,” the Bucks tweeted after Game 4, a parting shot at the same Heat who had eliminated them in five last year in the Orlando bubble. Milwaukee needs to win the conference this year as much as Brooklyn does. More than Brooklyn does.
Not that the Nets should allow themselves to believe they’re in the first stage of some wide-open window of opportunity. They already gave away last year, and hey, nobody’s getting any younger. The Big 3 might never again be as healthy as they are right now. So despite the fact that Brooklyn, in Nash’s words, “is so far from being fully formed,” the coach emphasized the urgency of the moment. “We don’t want to give our players any outs or excuses,” he said.
First things first: Nash was hoping his team would come out determined in Game 5 to put the Celtics down for keeps. A closeout game, he said, “can be the toughest game.”
The Nets were expected to manage the burden. Their reward for beating the Celtics would be the Milwaukee Bucks, and a brutally difficult series that won’t feel like much of a reward at all.
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