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Nets getting ready for Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

Brooklyn hosts Game 1 of second round Saturday at Barclays

June 3, 2021 John Torenli, Sports Editor
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The Brooklyn Nets had a whiplash moment Tuesday night moments after dispensing with the Boston Celtics at Downtown’s Barclays Center.

That’s how fast Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, James Harden and the rest of Brooklyn’s title-hungry players turned their attention to Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks.

“Personally, I’m thinking about them right now, just the matchups and things that they do on both ends of the ball,” Harden admitted after posting a triple-double in the Nets’ Game 5 win over Boston.

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“Obviously, we know how good they are on both sides and their individual talents. (Wednesday) we’ve got an off day and on Thursday we go watch film and prepare for them.”

It will take some preparing for sure. At least more than Brooklyn had to do to get ready for an undermanned Celtics squad that was lucky to take a game from the Nets in Beantown last week.

Antetokounmpo, the reigning two-time NBA Most Valuable Player, helped the third-seeded Bucks take two of three meetings from the No. 2 seed Nets during the regular season, but Harden was missing from the final two losses last month in Milwaukee due to a hamstring injury.

The Bucks (46-26) are certainly no strangers to playoff basketball, but have been viewed as a postseason disappointment the past two years after finishing with the league’s best mark and failing to advance to the NBA Finals.

They are doubtlessly determined to change that narrative in the weeks to come behind the talents of their top star and the likes of Khris Middleton, former Nets center Brook Lopez, P.J. Tucker and Jrue Holiday.

Former Nets center Brook Lopez will try to help the Bucks get through Brooklyn in the Eastern Conference semifinals, which begin Saturday night at Downtown’s Barclays Center. AP Photo by Morry Gash

With Game 1 slated for Barclays Center on Saturday night, the Nets have at least a few days to prepare for the Bucks, who swept through their opening-round series with a clean sweep of defending Eastern Conference champion Miami.

“We know who these guys are,” said Kevin Durant, who averaged an NBA-leading 34.8 points per game during the first round.

“Their strengths and weaknesses as individual players, as a collective. We’ve got to watch film and see how we can be at our best. We can take from what they did throughout the whole season.”

Though the Nets (48-24) will study film and look for weaknesses and tendencies, Harden believes much of that preparation will dissipate once the teams meet at mid-court at Barclays this weekend.

“It’s not going to come down to Xs and Os and plays and different schemes,” Harden noted.

“At the end of the day, after Game 1 and Game 2, we’re going to know each other’s plays. So it’s about details and the small things, the boxouts, who can dive on the basketball on the floor, who’s going to make winning basketball plays and whoever does is going to have a chance of winning in the NBA.”

The Big Three each averaged better than 24 points per game in the first round, becoming the first playoff triumvirate to so in a series since the 1984 Denver Nuggets.

The Bucks had to survive an overtime thriller in Game 1 vs. the Heat before cruising thereafter.

Both teams will be well-rested and ready to go at it in what should be a longer and more heated series than either club dealt with in Round 1.

“I think it’s meant for a lot of the best players in the league to go up against one another and show why we are who we are. Mutual respect on both sides for what we are capable of doing talent-wise,” said Irving.

“We obviously know it’s going to be some adjustments made on the fly when we are going up against each other. Offense is going to be easy to go by sometimes and tough. We just have to learn from the game plan and we will have a few days to prepare with. Basketball is basketball.”

Rookie head coach Steve Nash, who is trying to guide this talent-laden bunch to the franchise’s first-ever NBA title and our borough’s first major pro sports championship since 1955, knows Antetokounmpo is virtually unstoppable.

The Nets’ collective defense, which came up a notch vs. Boston, has to concentrate on making life hard for a player who averaged 23.5 points, 15.0 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game vs. Miami.

“What makes (Antetokounmpo) great is not one thing,” said Nash. “It’s the four or five things he excels at at both ends of the floor.”

“I mean he’s a two-time MVP, Defensive Player of the Year for a reason,” added Durant. “So we’re looking forward to the challenge.”

So are the Bucks, who are sick and tired of being the rulers of the regular season only to see their championship dreams crumble in the playoffs.

“We’re going to try to throw things at them to see what works,” Antetokounmpo revealed. “At the end of the day right now, we’re focused on ourselves as much as possible.”

The Barclays Center will be rocking from opening tip to final buzzer Saturday night in Downtown Brooklyn. AP Photo by Kathy Willens

As are the Nets, who will be working out and practicing at their state-of-the-art training center in Sunset Park in anticipation of the next step on their journey toward a title.

“I always like to lean on mental toughness. Being able to have the resolve to continue to work, to fight, to persevere no matter if the game’s going well or not,” said Nash.

“Never giving up, never giving an inch and giving yourself a chance on the mental side to compete fully. But of course, technically there’s a bunch of things that you want to go well for your side to have the upper hand.”

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