NBA

NBA playoffs: Bucks waste golden opportunity in Game 1 vs. Nets, Giannis Antetokounmpo blames ‘jitters’

NEW YORK — In retrospect, the Boston Celtics did an admirable job. Sure, they got smoked in five games, but they had a good game plan in their first-round series against the overwhelmingly talented Brooklyn Nets. They were disciplined in a way that the Milwaukee Bucks were not in Game 1 of the second round. 

The Bucks had a golden opportunity on Saturday and wasted it. Against an opponent that had just followed up the most efficient regular season of all time with the most efficient playoff series of all time, their shot selection was alarming. A few minutes in, Giannis Antetokounmpo pulled up for a 3-pointer in transition with 19 seconds on the shot clock. Early in the fourth quarter, Jeff Teague did the same thing with 20 on the clock. Shots like these are gifts for the Nets’ defense, and they feed Brooklyn’s murderous transition game. 

If they were taken by Milwaukee’s best 3-point shooters, the quick jumpers could have been justified. Here, though, they point to a broader problem: The Bucks played, perplexingly, like they had the talent advantage and the margin for error that comes with it. 

Antetokounmpo compared the 115-107 loss to the Milwaukee’s playoff opener, a 109-107 overtime victory against the Miami Heat. They shot 5-for-31 from 3-point range in the Heat game and 6-for-30 at Barclays Center. In both cases, the Bucks hadn’t played for a week and had “jitters,” he said. Collectively, they were unable to calm down and find the sort of shots they needed. 

“But the talent level wasn’t the same,” Antetokounmpo said. “Now we’re playing against Kyrie, KD, Joe Harris, one of the best shooters in the league. So it’s a little bit different, it’s a little bit more hard.”

The name he didn’t mention was James Harden, who reinjured his hamstring and had to exit the game 43 seconds into it. Brooklyn responded by playing its two remaining stars heavy minutes: 40 for Kevin Durant, who finished with 29 points and 10 rebounds; 45 for Kyrie Irving, who had 25 points and eight assists. Guard Mike James, who was out of the rotation in the Celtics series, came off the bench to record 12 points, seven boards and three assists. The Bucks’ entire bench had scored six points when coach Mike Budenholzer threw in the towel down 19 with 3:40 left, and yet Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday logged just 35, 36 and 37 minutes, respectively. 

“I think our guys left it all on the court,” Budenholzer said. “They all want to play 48 minutes. So we just gotta keep them competing, keep them where they can execute. Giannis never wants to come out, Khris, Jrue. But we got a deep team, we gotta take advantage of it. Keep ’em ready, keep ’em fresh.”

The reality is that Milwaukee sacrificed some depth last offseason in order to strengthen its starting five. Particularly without wing Donte DiVincenzo, it must lean on its best players. It must also be hyperfocused on exploiting Brooklyn’s weaker defenders, creating advantages and generating open shots, rather than allowing the Nets to bait them into contested ones. It was smart to start P.J. Tucker rather than waiting until Game 4 to make an adjustment, but far too often the Bucks’ lineups gave Brooklyn multiple pressure points to poke. And far too often, they threw possessions away. 

The Nets are always going to be more comfortable than Milwaukee in a helter-skelter environment, as evidenced by the Bucks scoring a miserable 81.8 points per 100 transition plays, per Cleaning The Glass. Compounding this problem, though, was Milwaukee’s lack of discipline in the half-court, where it scored 87.1 points per 100 possessions before garbage time, per CTG. 

There were static Antetokounmpo vs. Blake Griffin isolations with poor spacing, ending in turnovers:

There were questionable decisions to go at the quick-footed Nicolas Claxton one-on-one: 

And there was this extremely ambitious Bobby Portis drive against Durant:

Holiday said he thought the Bucks got “great looks” and chalked up their offensive shortcomings to himself (7-for-19) and Middleton (6-for-23) missing shots they usually make. “Honestly, I’m not concerned about our offense,” Brook Lopez said, pledging that they’ll shoot better in Game 2 and just need to get more stops. Lopez said that Game 1 can be a microcosm of a season in which Milwaukee has learned from losses and responded to adversity. 

Fortunately for the Bucks, Lopez is right about the last part. The loss was disappointing, not damning, and they are more than capable of executing better on Monday. But this was not simply a matter of a few bad bounces, and stopping an offensive juggernaut is much easier said than done. They won’t challenge Brooklyn unless they value possessions and play like underdogs. 



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