By Arnie Leshin
On Saturday night at Barclays Center, the Brooklyn Nets played defense, got a stellar game from two of their three superstars — Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving — and several of their “other” players came away with big games.
Yes, the Eastern Conference’s second seeds put on a show to turn back the 4th-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, 115-107, but their other superstar — James Harden — was missing, holding his hamstring that tightened 43 seconds into the game, and limping off the court to the locker room and not returning.
Now the do-everything Harden, who runs the show when Durant and Irving take a break, is out again when game two is played tonight in Brooklyn. It’s now a day-to-day thing.
What might help the Nets is the schedule for this series that many thing could go to the Bucks because of more size, more outside shooting, and a hounding defense. Getting Harden back could be helped by game 3 being played Thursday and game 4 Sunday in Milwaukee. That brings extra time for his right hamstring to heal.
Then again, it might not, for the strained hamstring in the same leg that occurred early in May kept him sidelined until May 12.
The Nets would love to have him back ASAP, but tonight they will play before an almost capacity crowd and go with what that have to assist Durant and Irving. That means former University of Oklahoma All-America,7-time NBA All-Star, 5-time All-Pro, and twice Player of the Year Blake Griffin, who has really given Brooklyn a big lift after it signed him in March.
It was said that he no longer could stuff the ball like he once did, but he proved that wrong, and that he no longer the inside strength or defense that the Nets need, and both of these were wrong.
“Blake has been just a great pickup,” said head coach Steve Nash, who retired as a basketball Hall of Famer and is coaching now for the first time. “Yes, he can still barrow in and stuff the ball, still can hit the outside shot, and still can play smart defense. Great to have him.”
True, the 32-year-old, 6-foot-9 Griffin has been a gift and Saturday night he contributed 18 points, brought down 14 rebounds, blocked three shots, and played strong defense.
He was right in tune with Durant, who again played an excellent game with 29 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists, and also with Irving, the magician with the ball who added 25 points, seven boards, and a dozen assists.
For more help, they got it from 6-6 guard Joe Harris, the most efficient 3-point shooter in the league, made 4-of-10 tries from beyond the arch and came away with 19 points and some heady assists. Then there was 6-4 Bruce Brown who tossed in six floaters from up close, helped move the ball, and added four rebounds and the same number of assists.
Defense? Well, they are doing it better now as the Bucks made only 6 of 30 tries from the 3-point land, and that included 6-11 Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo, who despite 34 points and 11 boards, was way off from outside range.
They were simply outplayed after sweeping the Miami Heat in four first-round games. They did get 19 points from former Nets center Brook Lopez, Jrue Holiday tossed in 17 to go with nine rebounds and Khris Miiddleton tallied 13 points, took down 13 boards, but in 3s was 6-for-23 by missing all of his five attempts.
The final score wasn’t as close as the 18-point lead Brooklyn lead hung up in the third quarter, increasing it to 22 in the fourth quarter, and then Milwaukee cut into the gap when Durant and Griffin both left with six personal fouls with two minutes remaining. They received a loud ovation from the happy home crowd, as did Irving when he departed as time ran down
The Nets did trail 32-30 after one quarter on a Lopez basket and foul shot at the buzzer, but when the second quarter began, Brooklyn sprinted on a 8-0 run to take 47-42 lead that increased to 59-48 with another 8-point run. The Bucks did close to within 63-61 at the break, but the pace favored the Nets, who pulled away for good in the third quarter.
Durant was exceptional, like Irving, a stellar team player. When he picked up his fourth foul with 1:36 left in the third, he quickly waved his hands toward Nash that he didn’t want to come out of the game. Nash left him in and he then converted seven-straight free throws and tossed in a 3 to up the lead to 98-82 as the quarter ran down.