The Nets lost James Harden less than a minute into the Eastern Conference semifinals. But they never came close to losing Game 1.
Riding their vaunted offense and some surprising perimeter defense, the Nets put together a resounding 115-107 victory Saturday over the Bucks before a raucous sellout crowd of 15,750 at Barclays Center.
With Harden limping off just 43 seconds into the game with an injured right hamstring, the rest of the Nets’ Big 3 came up huge when they were needed. Kevin Durant had 29 points and 10 rebounds, while Kyrie Irving played a marathon 44 minutes and turned in a stellar effort with 25 points, eight assists and five rebounds.
Mike James — who hadn’t played more than a minute since Game 2 of the first-round win over Boston — was summoned from the bench due to Harden’s injury and finished with 12 points and seven rebounds in 30:14.
Center Blake Griffin had his second double-double of the season (18 points, 14 boards) and a solid effort to help keep Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo (game-high 34 points) from completely wrecking the game, they way he did the back-to-back Nets losses in Milwaukee on May 2 and May 4.
After the Nets — somewhat shaken by the loss of Harden — had fallen behind 20-9 with 6:58 left in the first quarter on an Antetokounmpo hook shot, they quickly steadied the listing ship.
“I think it’s the same thing that we’ve preached all year; competitive spirit and connectivity. The one thing that we haven’t faced yet — little bit — but we didn’t face a ton of in the Boston series was really getting punched in the mouth,” coach Steve Nash had warned beforehand.
“When things are really going poorly or we’re having a difficult patch, how do we respond? Just preaching that competitive spirit and that connectivity to be able to stick together and weather some storms. That’s the hallmark of great teams and that’s something that I think we want to hang our hat on as we progress here.”
Harden’s injury was a sucker punch, but the Nets hit back.
Griffin provided physicality and hustle, twice diving on the floor to save loose balls. The first one he wrestled from Bryn Forbes and Bobby Portis as the sellout crowd gave him a huge ovation. He got more cheers when he fouled out with 1:26 remaining, the crowd recognizing what he had brought.
When the Nets got within 42-39 with 9:11 in the second quarter, their defense found its footing and sparked a quick two-minute burst and eight unanswered points. With their offense, the Nets don’t need to be stellar defensively, just good enough. And Saturday, they were good enough.
The Nets held Milwaukee to 6-for-30 shooting from 3-point range, and limited Khris Middleton to 6-for-23 overall.
When James hit a step-back 3-pointer with 7:40 left in the first half, it gave the Nets a 47-42 lead they never surrendered.
Irving put the Nets ahead 59-48 with a running layup, and even after facing the inevitable Bucks run led by Antetokounmpo, they withstood it. The Nets took a 63-61 edge into the locker room, regrouped and padded their lead in the second half.
The Nets were clinging to an 86-80 lead with just over two minutes left in the third quarter, when Durant sparked a 12-2 run. His step-back 3-pointer padded it to 98-82 with 5.1 seconds left in the period.
They cruised to victory from there. Game 2 will be Monday at Barclays Center.
“Well they’re an elite team on both sides of the ball. So we have to play well, play at a high level,” Nash said beforehand. “We have to have that competitive spirit, that connectivity, but it’s the details, the details in our game plan, being able to stick to our game plan, being able to play together offensively and put them under pressure in a collective way where we’re sharing the ball, making quick decisions, making it very hard to defend.
“So there are so many things that you try to take care of in order to play the game at a high level and to have an effective performance, but I think it starts with your approach and the connectivity and that competitive spirit.”