Nets will win win Game 4 — if they’re a great team

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The Nets do not have to seize Game 4 in Milwaukee to win this Eastern Conference semifinal. Simple math tells you they only need to hold serve at home against Giannis Antetokounmpo and friends, and they will advance to the next round.

Survive and advance, as one famous coach used to say, is a relatively foolproof approach.

But anyone who has spent time around title teams and dynasties knows what the Nets will do Sunday if they want to announce — or at least reaffirm — their championship worthiness to the rest of the NBA. They will win. They will take a 3-1 lead in the series. And then they will crush the Bucks in the Barclays Center on Tuesday night to start their march on (most likely) Philadelphia, for a conference-final clash of the titans that has always seemed inevitable.

That’s what a great team would do.

Which leads to a necessary question: Are the Nets really a great team?

That word is often tossed casually around sports like a wet towel in a locker room, and yet it felt natural to attach the label to the Big 3. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden on the same side? What isn’t great about that?

Kevin Durant and the Nets need to beat the Bucks in Game 4 because that's what a great team would do.
Kevin Durant and the Nets need to beat the Bucks in Game 4 because that’s what a great team would do.

For starters, at a postseason time when the most valuable ability really is availability, Harden has reduced the Big 3 to a Big 2. He played 43 seconds of Brooklyn’s rousing Game 1 victory, and hasn’t been seen on the floor since. His reinjured right hamstring won’t allow him to compete in Game 4, and maybe the Nets’ strategy here is to keep him out until the series is tied or, God forbid, until the Bucks take the series lead. Maybe the Nets are being a little more cautious with a valuable franchise asset than, say, the Mets feel they need to be with Jacob deGrom.

Or maybe the same hamstring that caused Harden to miss 18 consecutive regular-season games just won’t heal until the conference finals or Finals or, God forbid, until the offseason. Good health, or lack thereof, sometimes has more to do with who raises the trophy and who rides in ticker-tape parades than good players do. See Durant, Achilles, June 2019.

No question Harden’s absence — or his potentially limited return — makes this a more complicated journey. The Nets will have a tougher time without Harden winning their first championship of any kind since Julius Erving won two for them in those wild and crazy days of the ABA.

But I still believe the Nets are a good bet to win the whole thing. In fact, someone a lot smarter about these things than I am, former Knicks coach and current ESPN and ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy, agreed. While hosting on ESPN 98.7 radio on Saturday, I asked Van Gundy to name the team he would wager a few bucks on right now to win the title. He said that if he had to pick Brooklyn or the field, he would bet Brooklyn.

So would I. If the Nets don’t respond in Game 4, my faith in that wager will be tested to the max.

The Nets did recover from the 50-point punch Jayson Tatum threw at them in Game 3 of the first round, taking Game 4 in Boston before putting the Celtics out of their misery in five. But without Jaylen Brown, the Celtics barely belonged on the same court with the Nets. Antetokounmpo’s Bucks pose a more credible threat because their second-tier stars, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, are healthy. They now know they can beat Brooklyn in a playoff game — painful as the damn thing was to watch — and that they stand only one home victory away from putting extreme pressure on the Nets in what would become a best-of-three series.

It doesn’t have to go down like that. The Nets just need to continue playing the defense that they’ve been playing, and allow Giannis to launch as many 3-pointers as his heart desires. Joe Harris isn’t likely to repeat his dreadful Game 3 performance, and Bruce Brown isn’t likely to repeat his endgame mistakes. KD and Irving are formidable enough to take care of the rest.

“I just like how we stayed with it,” Durant said after Game 3, “and that’s what we’re going to have to continue to do in this series — stay with our plan, and stay with each other individually.”

If that happens, Irving said, “Game 4 should be special.”

It will only be special if the Nets win. And yes, a great team would get that done on Milwaukee’s floor.

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