Shorthanded Nets lose Irving, look to Pivotal Game 5 Tuesday
One week ago, Nets fans were in a state of euphoria. Their team dominated Milwaukee 125-86, leading by as many as 49 points to take a 2-0 series lead.
Everything was going right for Brooklyn.
The frequent discussion on sports talk radio became whether Brooklyn’s roster was making the NBA unfair. It was a foregone conclusion to many that the Nets would walk to a championship.
It’s amazing how things can change in a matter of days.
Following a game 3 collapse in which Brooklyn led in the final minute and a game 4 disaster that saw Kyrie Irving injure his ankle, the Nets are in serious trouble.
Oddly enough, the biggest threat to a Brooklyn title run was never another team, but rather injuries. The Nets lost James Harden in Game 1 to a hamstring strain. While a major blow, general manager Sean Marks traded for Harden for this exact reason. Three stars acted as an insurance policy in the event one got hurt.
However, no insurance policy could have accounted for the loss of two stars, which is exactly what happened midway through the second quarter of Game 4. Trailing by six, Irving cut to the basket and elevated for a layup, scoring the bucket but landing directly on Giannis Antetokounmpo’s foot, injuring his right ankle.
Milwaukee controlled the momentum from that moment on, coasting to a 107-96 victory to tie the series.
Head coach Steve Nash’s squad now finds itself desperate for playmaking, something few could have foreseen given Brooklyn’s star-studded roster. The Nets also lost Spencer Dinwiddie, another high-level shot creator, earlier in the season to a partial ACL tear. Now, in Game 5 absent Harden, Irving and Dinwiddie, the load falls entirely on Kevin Durant.
P.J. Tucker, and officiating, became the main storyline of Game 4. Tucker played an ultra-physical brand of defense, holding Durant to just 9 points on 25% shooting while guarding him. Tucker hand-checked and bodied Durant all night without any resistance from officials, a stark change from Games 1 and 2.
Tucker played outstanding defensively, but the officiating, or lack thereof, allowed him to do so. Milwaukee is a +19 in foul differential this series. Now, heading back to Brooklyn, it will be interesting to see if the referees turn back in the Nets favor.
Do they allow Durant to get comfortable early on? Or continue to let the physicality slide? The home crowd will play a huge role in what could be the biggest factor of Game 5.
Regardless of how the game is called, Durant cannot do it alone. Brooklyn will need better contributions from the supporting cast, particularly Joe Harris. The sharpshooter shot 4-19 (3-13 from three) in Games 3 and 4. He appeared hesitant off the dribble, struggling to find space or create for others.
Brooklyn’s ball movement stalled in the last two games. The Nets registered just 35 assists in Games 3 and 4 to 52 in Games 1 and 2. It’s no coincidence Harris’ efficiency dropped accordingly. Harris naturally plays better when the ball is popping, picking his spots within the flow of the offense. However, he will not have this luxury with Harden and Irving out. Brooklyn needs him to force the issue, be more than a role player, and earn his 4-year, $72 million contract.
Nash will likely implement several calls for the shooter early in Game 5. Expect actions similar to this dribble handoff/double screen to get Harris an open three or moving downhill:
Jeff Green will be another x-factor for Brooklyn. The 13-year veteran returned Sunday after missing more than two weeks with plantar fascia, scoring eight points on 2-4 shooting from the field. Green must force the Bucks to respect his outside shot for Brooklyn to have success offensively.
Durant will need to play a spectacular game for Brooklyn to have a chance. However, the Nets resorted to dumping the ball into Durant and watching late in Game 4, leading the supporting cast to get stale. This cannot happen again. The two-time Finals MVP will need to find the harmonious balance between isolation and getting others involved early.
Brooklyn is now an underdog in a series many saw as over just a week ago. While this can be seen as a worst-case scenario, the situation offers a rare opportunity for Durant to add a new component to his legacy.
KD was destroyed continuously for joining Golden State. That criticism continued with his decision to form a super team in Brooklyn. If there was ever an opportunity for him to silence the haters, this is it.
It is an extremely tall task. But hey, transcendent players do transcendent things.