Even with James Harden back in the Nets’ lineup for Tuesday’s Game 5, the Bucks looked just as dominant as they had in the previous two games of their Eastern Conference semifinal series.
By the time the first half was over, three Milwaukee players had double-digit points. Giannis Antetokounmpo was just three rebounds shy of a double-double. Milwaukee held a commanding 59-43 lead over Brooklyn, and Bucks fans were salivating over the possibility of eliminating the Nets in Game 6 on Thursday.
But it was a tale of two halves. Even with a clearly hobbled Harden struggling to make an impact, Kevin Durant went off, the Nets scored 71 second-half points and the Bucks melted down. Now, they are heading back to the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee needing a win in order to avoid an embarrassing elimination.
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In the first half, Antetokounmpo scored 17 points, with Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday adding 14 and 10, respectively, as the team shot a collective 53.7 percent from the field and a perfect 7 of 7 from the free throw line. On the other side of the court, the defense was doing its part. Durant racked up 18 points, but the Bucks had no problem holding Harden scoreless and forcing the Nets to shoot just 35 percent from the field overall.
So, what went wrong in the second half? Durant couldn’t be stopped. He finished with 49 points, 17 rebounds, 10 assists, three steals and two blocks in 48 minutes of action. Perhaps the best example of Durant’s Game 5 heroics: A tightly contested 3-pointer with 52 seconds left that put the Nets up by four.
Stopping Durant is no easy task. He’s a future Hall of Famer for a reason. But the Bucks’ struggles went beyond just being witnesses to a historic performance from KD.
They also failed to keep up offensively. Antetokounmpo again had 17 in the second half, but outside of his scoring, he struggled to make his usual impact. He had as many fourth-quarter rebounds (two) as turnovers. He dropped a pass from Middleton that likely would have resulted in a point blank layup to tie the game at 109 with less than 20 seconds to go.
And then there were the free throws. The Nets made sure that the two-time MVP wasn’t going to get easy paint touches. Twice in the final minute-and-a-half of play, Antetokounmpo was fouled, and he made only two out of four, allowing the Nets to effectively take away a basket in a close game. (He went 4 of 7 overall.)
But the blame isn’t just on Antetokounmpo. The crisp passing that helped get him and others open just wasn’t there in the second half. Holiday had three assists in the fourth quarter, but the rest of the team dished out just two. The Bucks were called for nine fourth-quarter fouls. The Nets were whistled for four.
All told, when the second half ended, the Bucks had been outscored 71-49, with the Nets having shot 64.9 percent from the field compared to 45.2 percent from the Bucks. The Nets had 16 assists in the second half, while Milwaukee had just eight.
There is still reason for hope, though. The Bucks haven’t lost at home this postseason, and the Nets are not at full strength. But even if the Bucks manage to take Game 6, they’d still have to beat the Nets again in Brooklyn in order to advance to the Eastern Conference finals.
After that second-half performance, it’s fair to wonder if Milwaukee would be able to close out a game with the series on the line.