Bucks celebrate 2021 NBA championship, then handle Nets to open title defense

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The Milwaukee Bucks picked up their rings for the 2021 NBA championship season on Tuesday and, even after the adrenaline of the celebration wore off, showed they are more than equipped to win the next one.

In a matchup between two teams heavily favored to contend for the Eastern Conference title in 2021-22, Milwaukee rode the celebratory wave through most of the first half and then soldiered through the second half for a mostly comfortable 127-104 victory over the Brooklyn Nets in the first game of the NBA season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 32 points with 14 rebounds and seven assists, and Khris Middleton added 20 points and nine boards on a night when the third member of their star triumvirate, Jrue Holiday, left late in the first half with a heel contusion and did not return.

Holiday's absence opened the door for second-year player Jordan Nwora, whose busy night included 27 minutes, 15 points and a fourth-quarter block of Kevin Durant that transitioned into a 3-pointer on the other end.

Durant, whose infamous toe on the line allowed the Bucks to win in overtime in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in June, started quietly but finished with 32 points and 11 rebounds, plus four assists.

Newly signed Patty Mills (21 points) hit all seven of his shots from 3-point range to help the Nets linger. James Harden was limited to 6-of-16 shooting and closed with 20 points along with eight boards and eight assists.

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Milwaukee's lead was a healthy 19 points with less than five minutes to go before half (and still a 13-point lead when Holiday departed), but the Nets closed the quarter on a 16-5 run to pull within 66-59 at the break. The Nets shot 54% in the first half and 58% from 3-point range, but the Bucks were able to drop those percentages after the break.

Nwora made the most if his floor time, closing with six rebounds alongside his 6-of-13 shooting effort. Holiday finished with 12 points in 18 minutes on 5-of-7 shooting.

With so many familiar faces back from the 2021 championship squad, the only true newcomer who figured to see major minutes was Grayson Allen, who started and scored 10 points in 28 minutes. His steal against Harden led into a Nwora 3-pointer with just over eight minutes left, spotting the Bucks a 106-93 lead that felt like a final blow.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 32 points in the Bucks' season-opening win.
Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 32 points in the Bucks' season-opening win.

George Hill, who wasn't with the Bucks last year but certainly counts as a familiar face, was limited to just one point on 0-of-3 shooting. But Pat Connaughton again showcased the ability that made him so dangerous off the bench in the 2021 postseason, hitting 9-of-13 shots and landing on 20 points.

Antetokounmpo missed his first three shots, although he rebounded the last of those to record the first Bucks points of the new season. When he threw down a wide-open dunk thanks to Middleton's rifled football-pass assist from Brooklyn's paint, it was 15-8, Fiserv Forum was rocking, and the Nets had to call timeout with 7:14 to go in the opening quarter.

When Antetokounmpo hit his first 3-pointer of the season (he finished 1-of-4 from behind the arc), Milwaukee's lead swelled to 18-8. After he swatted away his first block on the ensuing possession, Connaughton finished it off with another triple to give the Bucks a 21-8 edge.

Even after Brooklyn pulled to within five points with 10:07 left in the first half, Nwora responded with a triple on the other end, the first points of a 16-3 run that put the Bucks comfortably in control for the moment.

If national writers' predictions come to pass, this certainly won't be the last high-profile matchup between the two sides, with the defending-champion Bucks and talent-rich Nets seen as a clear-cut top two in the conference.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Bucks defeat Nets to open season after 2021 championship ring ceremony

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