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The Bucks have a chance to save a franchise from itself

·5 min read
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Mike Budenholzer could probably feel his job security hanging in the air for three scoreless minutes.

Kevin Durant could taste the thievery of a third game when a 30-footer left his hand, looking on line.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton could remember the frustration of humble beginnings, both arriving in Milwaukee eight years ago and combining to do just enough to stave off extinction.

The Fiserv Forum crowd went from the obscene to a wild scene, fearful Thursday night would be a cruel conclusion: Grand opening, grand closing.

The tension was palpable as the Milwaukee Bucks weren’t just dealing with a “win or go home” situation, but “win or start over,” avoiding disaster and a 3-0 deficit to the Brooklyn Nets with an ugly 86-83 win.

It seemed the Bucks were begging to be put out of their own misery, unable to put the Nets away after a start that gave the impression they would return the favor from absorbing a Game 2 thrashing.

But the despair was in the air whenever Antetokounmpo launched one of his eight stress-inducing 3-pointers, continuing his woeful trend. It’s somewhat of a mind game with him, wanting to make Blake Griffin and the Nets pay for giving him that much space — all the while ignoring the interior hell he unleashed early before Middleton and Jrue Holiday saved them late.

This infatuation with the perimeter seems to parallel his hesitance at the foul line, where he missed five of his nine attempts and was called for a 10-second (actually 13-second) violation. It’s the worst time to fall in love with a shot you can’t make because of shots you don’t want to take, two patterns that are unlikely to change in this series.

Budenholzer said it would be a test of Milwaukee's character, considering they were smarting after two losses in Brooklyn. Nobody questioned their competitiveness, but nobody expected a throwback game to the ugliest part of the ’90s either.

Brook Lopez blocked six shots and P.J. Tucker riled things up by getting in Durant’s face a day after lobbing compliments his way.

The edge was necessary.

Kyrie Irving said he liked it, but Antetokounmpo didn’t grow up with the same nostalgia.

“Personally, I enjoy fast, fast-paced, high-scoring games,” Antetokounmpo said. “It was a low-scoring game, possession by possession, you have to get stops. We can move the ball better so we can get back to scoring 110, 120 points.”

Kevin Durant #7 of the Brooklyn Nets and P.J. Tucker #17 of the Milwaukee Bucks exchange words during the second half of Game Three of the Eastern Conference second round playoff series at the Fiserv Forum on June 10, 2021 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
P.J. Tucker riled things up by getting in Kevin Durant’s face a day after lobbing compliments his way. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

The Bucks became familiar with desperation, their only ally because they haven’t been able to doctor up reasonable adjustments to take advantage of an undermanned and underwhelming defensive unit in the Nets.

“I feel like for us, that's the type of defense that we want to play and we got to muck up the game and we got to muck it up,” Holiday said.

The struggle of the playoffs was on full display. The Bucks have been there all series, they just happened to drag the Nets into the mud with them, holding the Nets to 25% from 3-point range while shooting 19% themselves — mostly, though, misses from the two-time MVP.

“You gotta shoot,” said Antetokounmpo, noting the space he’s being given from the perimeter. “You got to make the best decision. … At the end of the day, my instincts telling me that's the right decision to take. You know, I live with that.”

Is it the best decision because he feels confident in his shot? Or is it because he’s been playing for Budenholzer for years now and witnessed the lack of creativity offensively, so the last resort is the only one? Which speaks to a bigger problem that would be exposed in the next few days.

We keep expecting the Bucks to look like the regular-season snipers they’ve been, or the juggernauts they were in Round 1 against Miami, but the evidence seems clear enough for judgment.

The wonderful ball movement has been replaced by heavy isolation from non-isolation players, and it seems like a matter of time before this swings permanently in the Nets’ favor, even as they’re still without James Harden.

This is who the Bucks are, a team that can’t rely on its offense unless getting the largest chunk of team scoring in NBA playoff history from Antetokounmpo and Middleton, which is a recipe for nothing more than a one-game reprieve.

“I think the first quarter [Antetokounmpo] was in attack mode, I think [the team scored] 30 points, and then from there was a little bit of a slugfest,” Budenholzer said.

The slugfest slowed to a crawl when both sides went three minutes in the fourth without scoring before Middleton cracked the seal, hitting consecutive jumpers only to be matched by Durant. Even if the Bucks as a whole haven’t and won’t break from their shooting slump, Middleton is more sure to shake out of his issues — and got grimy to grab 15 rebounds to go along with 35 points.

The Bucks are supposed to be the ones comfortable when things aren’t unfolding as planned, yet the Nets look fine dancing off-rhythm. Strategically, Steve Nash is supposed to be the sideline novice, but the Nets have neutralized Tucker and found a way to maximize a 6-foot-3 guard playing center named Bruce Brown. 

Brown’s quickness allowed him to play Lopez to a draw most plays, and the offensively challenged performer played his role to perfection until he had his Carlton Banks moment with seven seconds left instead of giving the ball to Will (Durant).

Everyone held their breaths with Durant’s final look, because even though it would’ve only forced overtime, the Bucks wouldn’t have been able to survive.

Now there’s a chance to salvage a split, to save a franchise from itself — if the players are willing to accept the only way to get it is out of the mud.

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