No James Harden?
And no contest, the biggest rout in Nets playoff history.
Shorthanded Brooklyn played without Harden, and didn’t even need him to roll to a dominant 125-86 Eastern Conference semifinal Game 2 rout of Milwaukee before a delirious sellout crowd of 15,776 at Barclays Center.
With Harden seated on the baseline in sweats and a white shirt, the Bucks effectively waved the white flag. The Nets led by as much as 27 in the second quarter, when Milwaukee — which hadn’t played a second of zone in the series opener — went zone and dared Kevin Durant to shoot over it.
It felt more like a surrender than a strategy, more a capitulation than a real comeback. And there would be no rally in this one. Not the way the Nets played.
The Nets were brilliant on both ends. They shot 52.1 percent overall and hit a team playoff record 21 of 42 from 3-point range. Durant led the way with a game-high 32 points and six assists.
“I think we got to be better defensively in Game 2. Collectively we got to be better individually. We’ve got to be better,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said before the game. “Brooklyn is a very talented group that played well Game 1 and so we got to make them uncomfortable. We got to make them feel us more in Game 2.”
It didn’t happen.
Kyrie Irving added 22 points, five rebounds and handed out six of the Nets’ 27 assists, compared to just nine turnovers in a clean game by Brooklyn. The Bucks’ performance, on the other hand, was anything but.
The Nets’ much-maligned defense harassed Milwaukee into 44.0 percent shooting. And after holding the Bucks to 6 of 30 from deep in Game 1, they made it 8 of 27 Monday night.
They forced 16 turnovers, getting out on the break and converting them into 23 points.
“We definitely know they can shoot better. If they create better shots, they’ll make more so it’s about not allowing them to create really good looks,” Steve Nash said. “That’s the game: Try to take things away and try to make it difficult for them. If they’re successful, you tip your hat to them; but you want to make it as difficult as possible.”
They held Giannis Antetokounmpo to 18 points on 0 of 3 from 3-point range and 2 of 7 from the free-throw line. On first impression the numbers aren’t bad, but first impressions would be wrong. The two-time reigning MVP had averaged 39.7 points in leading Milwaukee to a 2-1 season-series win over Brooklyn.
Now the Nets will take a commanding 2-0 series lead into Thursday’s Game 3 in Milwaukee, with the expectation of getting Harden back at some point in the conference semifinals, and key reserve Jeff Green as well.
Brooklyn pulled away early, and never gave up that momentum.
The Nets were leading just 17-13 after a Bryn Forbes pull-up 3-pointer with 4:45 left in the first quarter, but they blew it open with an extended 26-8 run that spanned into the second.
After Blake Griffin hit a 3-pointer off a Landry Shamet drive-and-kick, it put the Nets ahead 43-21. The clock read 10:10 left in the first half, but the game was already over.
Frankly, even the Bucks seemed to know it, too.
By the time Durant found Mike James for a 3-pointer with 3:04 left in the half, Brooklyn had padded the cushion to 60-33. Durant and Joe Harris had held Middleton to a scoreless 0-for-8, and the game was well in hand.
Budenholzer desperately tried to go zone, but Durant shot over it. Then Irving picked it apart, finding Bruce Brown in the middle of it for floaters. Basically, the Nets did whatever they wanted, took whatever they choose.
Brooklyn led 65-41 at the break, the two-dozen point cushion tied for the second-biggest halftime lead in franchise playoff history. It just got uglier from there.
Durant checked out after the third quarter. And Irving, Harris and Blake Griffin all checked out with 9:04 to play and Brooklyn ahead 103-70.
When little-used rookie Reggie Perry hit a 3-pointer with 5:32 left, it brought raucous cheers from the crowd, and he followed with another 27 seconds later to make it 118-74.
It got testy when Tyler Johnson got tossed to the court by Mamadi Diakite for a flagrant. Johnson hit both free throws, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot added a 3-pointer and the game got utterly out of hand at 123-74.