MILWAUKEE— Long gone are the days you could call the Nets a bad defensive team. Anyone who spews this rhetoric does not watch this team play.
Defense was the only way these Nets kept Game 3 competitive after the Bucks ran up a 30-9 lead in the opening period, only for the Nets to respond and make it a 45-42 game entering the half.
Had they not exerted that energy to come back from down 21, however, they may have been able to come away with a victory.
As high-powered of an offense as these Nets have proven to be, and as sound a defensive team as they strive to become, they can ill-afford to dig themselves early holes, only to rely on their firepower to propel them out of the ditch.
The Nets left the ammo in Brooklyn this time around, shooting just 36% from the field and 25% from three. When the defense showed, the shots did not.
“Shoot, man, (the Bucks) did what they were supposed to do: come out aggressive, backs against the wall, and we had to weather that storm,” said Kyrie Irving postgame. “So (it) definitely kind of put us on our heels for the rest of the game just playing catch up, playing their style of basketball, and then they made some big timely shots which carried them forward.”
Defense was the only way the Nets were going to make something out of nothing on the road, in front of Bucks fans who chanted “F--- KD!” every time Kevin Durant touched the ball in the second half.
And defense is the only way this team is going to win an NBA championship with a roster that was constructed on the fly after a midseason blockbuster trade took a wrecking ball to their chemistry.
Having the best player on the floor doesn’t hurt, either.
But having the best player on the floor and locking up in the second quarter doesn’t save the Nets from the Game 3 tendency they have established through their first two playoff series: They came out unfocused in Game 3 against the Celtics when Jayson Tatum scored 50, when Tristan Thomspon grabbed nine offensive rebounds, and when Marcus Smart and Evan Fournier combined for nine made threes.
And they did not have the same oomph in Game 3 as they did in Brooklyn in Game 2. Joe Harris shot just 1-of-11 from the field, Durant and Irving combined to shoot 5-of-16 from downtown, and one of the Nets’ most impressive defensive efforts of the season fell by the wayside because one team brought the fight early while the other took the punches instead of connecting on their own.
“I think we missed good looks,” said Durant. “We got some early on. I guess we were just hoping the next shot went in, and then they got up 15, and then we’d come down and get a good look, and then (the shot would) miss, and now they’re out on a long rebound. So it just didn’t work out for us to start the game.”
The Nets had their chances down the stretch, a pair of failed plays that resulted in missed Bruce Brown layup attempts with the game on the line. The game may not have been on the line had they not come out flat in the open.
Durant’s production is magnified tenfold when the Nets are locked in on defense, and the Nets have proven themselves more than just a competent defensive team. After falling behind 21 in the opening period, they held the Bucks to just one field goal for the first seven minutes of the second quarter before Khris Middleton stopped the bleeding with a contested fading jump shot.
The same type of rowdy fan energy that visibly shook the Nets at the TD Garden caught them off guard at the Fiserv Forum, where a sellout crowd that spilled into the outside plaza lifted the Bucks to an 86-83 win over the Nets. The Bucks came out with the desperation of a roster that knows history is unkind to teams that fall down 0-3 in the playoffs, no matter the sport.
The Nets did not come out with that desperation, but recent history says they’ll make the adjustment. After the Game 3 loss in Boston, the Nets held the Celtics role players in check, kept Thompson off the offensive glass and won in a blowout Game 4 before wrapping the series in five at home.
This is a much taller task, a Bucks team with their backs against the wall, knowing a Game 4 loss gives the Nets leeway to wrap this series in five at home.
The Nets need to come out as if losing Game 4 gives the Bucks leeway to wrap this series.
Showing up in the second quarter isn’t going to get it done, even if the defense is carrying the offense.