Brooklyn Nets vs. Milwaukee Bucks: How the Nets controlled Game 1, even without James Harden

Brooklyn Nets Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Brooklyn Nets Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images) /

Looking back at how the Brooklyn Nets controlled Game 1 against the Milwaukee Bucks, even without James Harden. 

Even with James Harden re-injuring his hamstring 20 seconds into the game, the Brooklyn Nets cruised to a 115-107 Game 1 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks; seizing the lead in the middle of the second quarter and never relinquishing it. So how did these Nets – down one star – outclass the mighty Milwaukee Bucks?

  • Dictating the tempo

Not that the Bucks want to play slow (led the league in transition frequency at 17.8%, per Cleaning the Glass), but an up-and-down rat race filled with quick shots favors Brooklyn – particularly at home. Milwaukee needs to play a bit more methodically and force Brooklyn to buckle down and get dirty in the trenches; which they largely did early on (9 offensive rebounds in the first quarter).

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After that, the Bucks settled for oodles of jumpers, which invigorated the Nets’ fast-break attack. Good luck beating this team in a shooting competition. This sequence was key, as Giannis Antetokounmpo could have cut the Brooklyn lead to 4. Instead, it went up to nine, and the Nets never looked back.

  • Off-ball movement

Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant are transcendent scorers, we knew that. We also knew that Brook Lopez was going to struggle at times in drop coverage and that Blake Griffin is going to get all-he-can-eat on pick-and-pop 3s. But the Bucks looked completely out of sorts and unprepared for the improvisation of the Brooklyn Nets, which was disappointing.

Some of these breakdowns were caused simply by movement and cutting, which can’t happen at this stage of the season. Watch here in the opening minutes as two Bucks stay with Joe Harris. It wasn’t just Harris, either. Look at how Kyrie running the floor causes the slightest hesitation on Jrue Holiday’s part. KD can do these types of things to defenses.

Milwaukee also didn’t bring the requisite intensity at times, as shocking as that is to hear. Khris Middleton had a miserable game on both ends, starting at the very beginning. The rotations were a bit slow. Blake Griffin (?) was the first to the floor on multiple occasions.

There didn’t seem to be a coherent approach against ball-screens involving the weaker links (Bryn Forbes, Pat Connaughton). Switching here is a non-starter, but more ball pressure is needed (definitely not whatever that is). The Nets capitalized on Milwaukee’s newfound adoption of switching, as well. Look at how Bruce Brown setting an early screen for Kyrie removes Giannis from the equation.

When all else failed, the Nets spammed empty-side action involving Durant with 3 shooters dotting the perimeter. Seriously, how do you guard this?

  • Staying connected defensively

Save for a few lapses (especially at the end of quarters), Steve Nash’s group was extremely connected and focused on the defensive end of the floor. They won the math battle – holding Milwaukee to just a 10.1% FT Rate (fifth-lowest of the season) and a 27.9% 3PA rate (third-lowest) – which with this talent may be more than enough. The attentiveness was there, watch how Durant denies the first option, while Claxton fronts Giannis in the post with help behind him. The Bucks thrive on giant windows and monumental physical advantages. Make them read the floor and expose their biggest weakness: passing. Kyrie even had his moments. Nic Claxton continues to impress moving his feet. The fact that Brooklyn didn’t even have to go full supernova to win comfortably should be quite encouraging…and terrifying for the other seven remaining teams.

  • Shooting luck

It’s a “make or miss league,” and the reality is, Milwaukee missed on tons of good looks. Middleton and Jrue Holiday combined to go 13-42, and both were clearly pressing as the game wore on. Per Kevin Pelton of ESPN, the Bucks actually generated a higher overall shot quality as measured by Second Spectrum; they just failed to convert. A very similar thing happened in Game 1 against Miami two weeks ago, and we know how the rest of that series unfolded.

These Nets are uniquely suited to withstanding injuries – there are diminishing returns to adding a third ball-dominant star. They’ve been through this all season. However, I would favor the Bucks in each game that James Harden misses. Call me a Harden-stan, but I still believe he is their best and most important player.

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The Nets made just 54.2% of its attempts around the rim, with Giannis, Brook Lopez, and P.J. Tucker doing an excellent job flooding and challenging drives. Can Durant make them pay with cross-court passes? Game 2 is as close to a must-win. Let’s see how Milwaukee responds.