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All In: Bucks Are Out Of Time, Cards To Play

Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals is on Saturday.

NBA: Playoffs-Brooklyn Nets at Milwaukee Bucks Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Bucks will probably play their last game of the season tomorrow, in a Game 7 showdown on the road against the Brooklyn Nets. Probably, not definitely.

Enthusiastic fans might question the choice of adverb. Why is it “probably” the Bucks’ Last Stand? Why the negativity? Why so serious? The answer to that question is another question: have you watched this series? Milwaukee has won a game they rightfully should have lost (Game 3), and lost games they arguably should have won (Games 1 and 5). Even in the other contests, Milwaukee has played inconsistent basketball, each possession seeming as unpredictable as the one that preceded it.

The Bucks have shown us all year long who they are, and we had no reason not to believe them. They are a good team with the capacity to be a great one, if they manage to play within themselves and stay out of their own way. If. Over the course of this playoff series against the Nets, Milwaukee has shown more than a few reasons that justify not believing in them. Giannis Antetokounmpo has made all sorts of questionable decisions, including scratching an itchy trigger finger on three-pointers. When he finally stopped, Jrue Holiday started, and it seems that the Bucks’ major offseason acquisition is struggling on offense...just like everyone else on the roster. Well, except for Khris Middleton, who showed out on Thursday and kept Milwaukee afloat, but it took a while for him to get there. Head coach Mike Budenholzer, ever the target of criticism, is coaching like his job depends on it. It sort of does!

With all that said, in Game 6 there were a few glimmers of hope, which when gathered together can illuminate a possible path for the Bucks to pull off a stunning upset and claim victory against the Nets.

In order to beat Brooklyn, the Bucks will need a number of things to go their way. Some of these things are in their control, some of them they can influence, and some are up to fate. First and foremost, Giannis Antetokounmpo needs to play under control and, no matter what, make the right play on every possession. The Bucks go as Giannis goes, and that applies to more than just this series. Every regular season under Bud, Giannis has dominated, and so have the Bucks. Every postseason, Giannis dominates lesser competition, and so do the Bucks. But when matched up against an opponent with both the skill and the will to force him to think, he falls back on instinct, and the Bucks start to falter. It was the undercurrent of the 2019 ECF against Toronto, the 2020 ECSF against Miami, and will be the story of this year’s team should Milwaukee fall on Saturday.

On Thursday, Giannis did exactly that, and it was a significant departure from his chosen style of play in the games leading up to Game 6. He cut out sugary three-pointers from his diet of shots and routinely passed out of midrange opportunities in order to set up teammates. He also avoided telegraphing his intentions – like he did near the end of Game 5, twitching on the wing to get the pass so he could run Jeff Green over for a charge call – and avoided the kind of hero ball that has submarined the Bucks’ offense all too often recently.

The rest of the rotation matters, but Giannis is the biggest piece. Once that falls into place, Milwaukee has some breathing room and it isn’t required for everybody else to play the game of their lives in order to survive against the Nets. Khris Middleton happened to deliver the performance of his career in Game 6, but what’s more likely to happen in Game 7 is that everyone around Giannis stays steady and avoids falling into a ditch on offense. Jrue Holiday earned a ton of ire for his 1-for-10 shooting performance on threes yesterday, but Pat Connaughton and Bryn Forbes (the 6th and 7th guys in the 7-man playoff rotation) combined for 0-for-7 from deep. If your backcourt can avoid shooting below 10% on threes, your offense is probably going to perform a bit better.

Most fans expected the NBA playoffs series between Milwaukee and Brooklyn to be a high-octane shootout, but it has instead played out like a barroom brawl. The Nets deserve credit for their defensive execution; Durant, Bruce Brown, Blake Griffin, and Jeff Green have all pitched in to hold the Bucks’ offense back. Milwaukee’s defense has earned their credit too, holding the Nets to 112.6 points per game, six points lower than their season average of 118.6. This might not sound like an impressive accomplishment, but they’ve made it all the way to the end of a seven-game series, so the defense has at least been good enough. PJ Tucker has part of the answer for what they need to do to advance, included in his fantastic postgame media availability session last night:

To paraphrase Tucker’s monologue, the Bucks need to concede that Kevin Durant is going to score points. A lot of points. And in conceding that, they need to limit the number of opportunities that Durant’s teammates have to pile on; Game 5’s collapse was largely driven by KD’s all-time performance, but Milwaukee would have won comfortably were it not for Jeff Green’s scorching shooting performance (7-for-8 from deep), or Blake Griffin’s bevy of buckets (17 points on 11 shots). Those outbursts from Durant’s sidekicks are variable; Green and Griffin combined for only 6/17 from the field in Game 6, partially because they simply missed shots and partially because they were not permitted to take many easy shots.

Durant is going to get his, he’s too good not to. He might put up another 40+ point performance in an attempt to close things out in Brooklyn. But outside of Durant, the Nets’ best available shot creator is James Harden, who has had his mobility severely restricted by a hamstring injury re-aggravated in Game 1. Harden forced his way into playing in Game 5 and was generally horrendous, and was a much more positive force for Brooklyn in Game 6. In both games, though, he’s not the same threat to drive as he usually is, meaning that the Bucks’ bigs (namely Brook Lopez) don’t have to sag so far off of their man when Harden has the ball on the perimeter (which, when James Harden plays, is a fair amount of the time). Lopez playing up higher eats up the runway that his assignment (Green or Blake or Bruce Brown) would otherwise have free to load up and let it fly, limiting Brooklyn’s options. Nobody else in Milwaukee’s rotation is going to purposely leave their man on an island, unless it’s a designed blitz or an improvised gamble.

It may not be the most elegant adjustment, but playing the Nets straight up might be the Bucks’ best bet for keeping Brooklyn’s offense from boiling over and giving Milwaukee’s an opportunity to fill it up on the other side. PJ Tucker is up to the task, as is Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Jrue Holiday. The Bucks need to keep switching, keep communicating their switches, and keep their focus and discipline. If they can do all that, they’re likely to be in a position to succeed...because Brooklyn’s star power might come undone thanks to the age-old enemy of every human: fatigue.

The Nets are built around their three stars, but that trio of celestial wonders are not shining as brightly as expected. Kyrie Irving is out. James Harden has a busted wheel and lacks the same dynamism that earns him MVP votes; his triple-threat is only to pass or shoot, as the threat of his drives is currently theoretical in nature. Kevin Durant is every bit of the superstar we expected/feared, but has also played a ton of minutes. Over the past four games, Durant has logged playing time totals of 42:52, 41:54, 48:00, and 40:22. These are not insurmountable minutes loads for a player of Durant’s caliber, but in the aggregate they are the sort of physical exertion that might build up for someone and result in a shot, one shot, falling short rather than falling through. In a Game 7 situation, that might be enough to make all the difference. All the pieces matter, including travel time, where our resident skywatcher Andrew gives us some insight about both teams’ trips back to Brooklyn. The Bucks went out this afternoon after getting (hopefully) a good night’s sleep while the Nets…didn’t.

Is that enough to make a tangible difference? Probably not, but of all the straws to grasp for, this one isn’t outlandish.

The Bucks are playing for their playoff lives tomorrow. If they don’t pull off the unexpected, this group of players might not get another chance to make a run, and the coaching staff is almost certainly moving on to other opportunities. But a series comeback for the Bucks isn’t impossible, merely improbable. It’s unreasonable to simply assume that they’ll just find a way to win, but we’ve learned a long time ago to not make assumptions about the Milwaukee Bucks.

For all intents and purposes, this is it. The Bucks and Nets have their chips pushed to the middle, the cards have been dealt, and it all comes down to this. It’s winner-take-all, loser goes home with lint in his pockets. Who’s it going to be?

Thats why they play the games, isn’t it?