2021 NBA conference semifinals previews: (2) Brooklyn Nets vs. (3) Milwaukee Bucks

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·6-min read
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The second-seeded Brooklyn Nets and third-seeded Milwaukee Bucks meet in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Nets and Bucks respectively beat the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat in the opening round of the 2021 NBA playoffs. This marks the first playoff meeting between the two franchises since 2003.

Game 1: Milwaukee at Brooklyn, 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday (TNT)
Game 2: Milwaukee at Brooklyn, 7:30 p.m. ET on Monday (TNT)
Game 3: Brooklyn at Milwaukee, TBD on Thursday (ESPN)
Game 4: Brooklyn at Milwaukee, 3 p.m. ET on June 13 (ABC)
*Game 5: Milwaukee at Brooklyn, TBD on June 15 (TNT)
*Game 6: Brooklyn at Milwaukee, TBD on June 17 (ESPN)
*Game 7: Milwaukee at Brooklyn, TBD on June 19 (TNT)
*if necessary

How they got here

Brooklyn Nets

The Nets are so clearly the most talented team remaining in the playoffs, led by two former MVPs and a seven-time All-Star who is every bit as gifted offensively. Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving are the greatest pure scoring trio in the history of basketball. They just combined to average 85.2 points per game on 53/45/92 shooting splits in their five-game first-round win over the undermanned Boston Celtics.

Joe Harris, the league's leading 3-point shooter in two of the past three seasons, and Blake Griffin, a six-time All-Star, are merely window dressing on the best offense of all time. Keep in mind, the Nets registered the best offensive rating in league history with Durant, Harden and Irving only playing eight games together in the regular season. That figure rose 10 points per 100 possessions with all three healthy in the playoffs.

Still, the Nets are not without their flaws. Their defense is a real issue. Boston star Jayson Tatum averaged a 31-6-5 on 42/39/92 splits with no threat beside him. They were without Jaylen Brown the entire series and two more starters for much of it. The Celtics created 71 wide-open 3-pointers in five games but only shot 31% on them. They had no business winning a game against the Nets, much less keeping two more close.

Brooklyn showed a penchant for unleashing a three-minute scoring barrage when it needed to put games away, but those barrages will have to be more frequent against a team as talented two ways as Milwaukee.

Milwaukee Bucks

As wildly efficient as Brooklyn's offense was in the first round, Milwaukee's defense was more so. Their 95.4 defensive rating against the defending Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat was almost seven points per 100 possessions better than any other NBA team through the first five games of the playoffs.

The Bucks can trot out lineups full of All-Defensive candidates, anchored by returning Defensive Player of the Year Giannis Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee's offseason upgrade from Eric Bledsoe to Jrue Holiday at the point guard position has been even more stark through one round of the playoffs. Holiday, P.J. Tucker and Bobby Portis have brought a toughness to a team that was already tactically capable on the defensive end. Their commitment to switching more on that end this year will be put to the ultimate test against the Nets.

Need we remind you that Antetokounmpo is also the league's two-time returning MVP. He averaged 24-15-8 against Miami and was nowhere near his usual high efficiency. The Bucks offer looks both big and small with four shooters around Antetokounmpo, even if they only shot 33% as a group from three in the sweep of the Heat. Their defense was so good it didn't matter, and their offense will be better against Brooklyn.

Brooklyn Nets superstar Kevin Durant and Milwaukee Bucks counterpart Giannis Antetokounmpo have brought out the best in each other this season. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Brooklyn Nets superstar Kevin Durant and Milwaukee Bucks counterpart Giannis Antetokounmpo have brought out the best in each other this season. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Head to head

The Bucks won their season series with the Nets, 2-1.

As with all things Brooklyn this season, you have to take regular-season results with a grain of salt. The Nets beat Milwaukee without Irving on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and Harden sat in Brooklyn's two recent narrow losses to the Bucks in early May. Milwaukee's best players were in the lineup for all three meetings and performed extremely well, and still all three meetings came down to the final minute, if not seconds.

Closing lineups

Brooklyn Nets

Durant, Irving, Harden and Harris are locks to be in any of Brooklyn's closing lineups. During the regular season, Jeff Green most often got the call as the fifth option in close games, but he missed the entire first-round series with a strained plantar fascia and has already been ruled out for Game 1 on Saturday. That specific quintet outscored opponents by 35 points over a 76-minute sample size during the regular season.

In few crunch-time possessions against the Celtics, the Nets prioritized Bruce Brown's defensive ability over other options with Green not available. Griffin proved a liability in that regard against Boston. Nicolas Claxton could be an option if Milwaukee's size poses a problem. It has not mattered who takes that fifth spot. In the few minutes Brooklyn's four most potent offensive weapons have played together, they have outscored opponents by 22.4 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage minutes, per Cleaning the Glass.  

Milwaukee Bucks

During the regular season, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer relied almost solely on Antetokounmpo, Holiday, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez in the clutch, with either Donte DiVincenzo or Pat Connaughton filling the fifth spot. DiVincenzo got the call in the Game 1 overtime win over Miami, but his foot injury in Game 3 will cost him the rest of the playoffs. The core four plus Connaughton is only a +6 in 97 minutes this season.

For that reason, do not be surprised to see Tucker as a fifth option — in place of Connaughton if Milwaukee wants to go super big or in lieu of Lopez if Brooklyn's small-ball closing lineup is presenting a challenge.

Matchup to watch

There is no doubt Antetokounmpo and Durant relish facing each other. Both have dialed up the physicality and mean mugs when sharing the court this season, if only because both have been labeled the heir to LeBron James' throne, and they are now battling for the title of top dog in the East. Their battle on May 2, when Antetokounmpo outscored Durant 49-42 in a 117-114 win, was one of the best duels of the season.

Antetokounmpo averaged 39.7 points (49/39/73 splits), 10.7 rebounds, five assists and 2.3 combined blocks and steals in 37.6 minutes over three games against the Nets this season. Durant countered with 34.7 points (49/52/85), 9.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists and two combined blocks and steals in 38.6 minutes.

Antetokounmpo and Durant defended each other for fewer than five minutes of their time on the court together during the regular season. That will change with a healthy Irving and Harden commanding the attention of Holiday and Middleton. This is a true battle of Big Threes, constructed entirely differently.

BetMGM series odds

Nets (-200)

Bucks (+165)

Prediction

Nets in seven (+350 at BetMGM).

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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