The two-time MVP scored 33 points in 43 minutes to lead Milwaukee to a hard-nosed win over Brooklyn.
The Bucks have a pulse. Khris Middleton—with a game-high 35 points and 15 (!) rebounds—finally looked like the midrange assassin he is, while Giannis Antetokounmpo was a clap of thunder in transition who wreaked havoc as a roll man all night long.
Meanwhile, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving combined to shoot 20-for-50 from the floor, and the Nets generated only 85.6 points per 100 possessions in the 86–83 loss on Thursday. That’s the second-worst offensive rating they’ve had all season. (They were less effective in a March 24 loss against the Jazz, in a game where Tyler Johnson, Jeff Green, Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot, Joe Harris and Bruce Brown were the starting five.)
All that said, the fact that Milwaukee escaped with only a three-point margin of victory is worrisome. They have no choice but to view Game 4 as another must-win. Here are a few more thoughts on everything that just happened:
Finally, Mike Budenholzer stopped messing around
In the most important game of their season and one of the most pivotal contests he may ever coach, Budenholzer did not sub Antetokounmpo out of Game 3 until there were 53.4 seconds remaining in the first quarter. This was noticeably out of step with Antetokounmpo’s normal substitution pattern: Aside from Game 2’s humiliating loss—when he first left the game with 2:21 on the clock—the Bucks’ sturdy franchise pillar will typically catch a quick blow right around the first quarter’s halfway point, then reenter shortly before the second quarter begins.
It’s been that way in every playoff game of the Budenholzer era, a routine point of contention that understandably frustrates and confuses those who don’t understand why a healthy, physically fit 26-year-old can’t play over 40 minutes while the opponent’s older stars do just that.
But in Game 3, the Bucks held a 30–9 lead when Antetokounmpo first sat. He finished with 43 minutes, his third-highest total in a playoff game since Budenholzer became his head coach. And the necessary desperation was felt elsewhere, with Middleton’s logging 44 minutes and Jrue Holiday’s resting for only 2.5. (With Holiday on the bench to start the second quarter, Bud reacted to a tough Irving pull-up over Middleton by immediately inserting his lockdown point guard back in the game.)
For the Bucks to win this series, those three will have to carry a humongous load, in monstrous minutes. This roster is … not deep.
Brook Lopez: The Gift and the Curse
Speaking of not being deep, Budenholzer’s decision to ride Brook Lopez in the fourth quarter with their season on the line was a precarious one, especially as Durant started to attack the big man’s patented drop coverage with one off-the-bounce jumper after the next.
Brooklyn took advantage of Lopez’s stiff legs with a barrage of high pick-and-rolls—mostly with KD but Irving ate as well. Brown had a ton of success as the rolling screener on these plays in the first half, walloping the Bucks with his giant-killing floater.
Instead of going small and moving Giannis to the five, or even asking a quicker Bobby Portis to deter wide-open jump shots from one of the best jump shooters in basketball history, Bud kept Lopez on the court and rolled the dice, playing percentages he apparently felt were in his team’s favor. Call it stubborn if you want. (I have.) But in this specific game, it worked.
Lopez acquitted himself down the stretch. Not only did he make one of the more important defensive plays of his career, racing step-for-step from the sideline to the rim with Brown to alter what would’ve been a go-ahead layup with five seconds to go, but in the last few possessions he positioned himself a few feet higher on the floor to make any pull-ups from Durant or Irving that much harder than they were earlier in the game.
The air space was tight, and on a couple of late possessions when the ball ended up in Brown’s hands, Lopez gave a strong contest on those same floaters that suddenly would not drop. He also helped way out on the floor to take away what could’ve been a wide-open three by Harris (who launched 11 shots and missed 10), then scampered back to block Brown’s shot in the paint.
When the Bucks have the ball, nobody on the Nets cares about Lopez, and the Bucks don’t give them any reason to. He scored three points and couldn’t even space the floor on countless Antetokounmpo drives that were met by three or four black jerseys in the paint. Lopez grabbed only one offensive rebound and, despite being guarded by much smaller defenders for most of the game, never once took any of them into the post.
He blocked six shots and moved about as well as anyone could ask him to when the Bucks needed him most. But maybe it’s best to see this performance as Lopez’s last stand. Whether Milwaukee actually does win an NBA championship or even reach the Finals, it feels less and less likely that their starting center will be on the court in the minutes that matter most.
Giannis three-pointers …
… need to stop. He took eight of them in this game. Seven did not go in. All were off the dribble. All were gross. Why they keep happening is one of the biggest mysteries in these playoffs.
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