The Long Two: Bucks-Nets could be the best series of the playoffs

Brooklyn Nets, Milwaukee Bucks, NBA

The Nets and Bucks have been on a collision course all season and are finally squaring off in the second round of the NBA playoffs.

It’s not often that a second-round playoff matchup delivers the best series of the entire postseason, but it’s equally rare that two juggernauts like the Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets meet this early in the bracket. Brooklyn’s win over the Celtics Tuesday night (and the Bucks’ smackdown of the Miami Heat in the preceding days) solidified what had been penciled in for months, and what could be the most intense and entertaining series this season.

The two teams have been, statistically, the most dominant of the postseason, yet it’s possible we still haven’t seen either at its absolute best. Both the Nets and Bucks used the regular season as a kind of laboratory to prepare for the postseason, experimenting with different schemes and lineup combinations, just in case either coach needed to resort to a different look in a high-leverage playoff game.

What should we expect from this Bucks-Nets series?

For the Nets, that experimentation was born mainly out of necessity as all three of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving missed different chunks of the season and the trio played just 202 possessions together all season. For the Bucks, it was a means of fortification against the many different looks a given playoff opponent could present — looks that have flummoxed Milwaukee in the past due to a lack of schematic versatility. That tweaking came with a slight statistical downturn, but their more varied approach should theoretically allow the Bucks to pivot into different sets or coverages when their base options don’t work.

They still prefer to play deep drop coverage against the pick-and-roll, but are now more comfortable switching those actions than they were in previous years; Giannis Antetokounmpo remains one of the most devastating downhill drivers in basketball, but he’s also mixed more screening and rolling into his game; Jrue Holiday is a massive upgrade over Eric Bledsoe. Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Khris Middleton have found a more equal balance on offense than Milwaukee has ever had under Mike Budenholzer.

That balancing act isn’t as tough to pull off for the Nets, whose three best players all shoot, pass and create for themselves. Brooklyn posted a lethal 123.2 offensive rating with Durant, Harden and Irving on the floor this season, and never dipped below 118 with any one of the three on the court. What little uncertainty there is about their offense lies only in how their role players fit in around those stars against a rangy and disciplined defense. Players like Bruce Brown, Landry Shamet and Blake Griffin could slip into open spaces in the regular season when defenses overloaded on one of the Big Three, but how much will their opportunity be limited when the opponent is smart enough to devise a workable coverage and physical enough to execute it?

Both teams will regrettably be without key players in this series, and while neither Jeff Green nor Donte DiVincenzo drives their team’s success to the degree Durant, Harden, Irving, Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Holiday do, both would have given their teams specific advantages in this particular series. DiVincenzo is a middling shooter with limited playmaking chops, but his defensive versatility and weak-side help instincts could have been crucial in slowing one of the most potent offenses the league has ever seen. Instead, the Bucks must fill most of his minutes with Pat Connaughton, Bryn Forbes and P.J. Tucker, all of whom are capable rotation players with a place in this series, but are better suited to play more niche roles beside more malleable players.

DiVincenzo’s absence will likely require Milwaukee to rethink their preferred matchups for the Nets’ star trio, with Antetokounmpo (whom the Bucks typically prefer to use as a help defender) the most likely matchup for Durant and Holiday all but guaranteed to primarily guard Harden or Irving. That will probably come in the form of a conventional pick-and-roll defense given the Nets’ proclivity for hunting mismatches and burning switches, and the Bucks would like to keep Lopez on the floor to contest the many floaters Brooklyn will attempt in the series.

Green, meanwhile, might be Brooklyn’s best defender against Antetokounmpo, and their only center option capable of pulling Lopez away from the rim — or off the floor entirely. Absent him, the Nets will likely use multiple primary defenders on Antetokounmpo — due largely to the fact that they switch virtually all screens — as well as constant help from the corners and wings. But with so many weak spots on defense, switching could give Holiday and Middleton weak points to pick at in isolation, and the Nets’ general lack of strength and agility at the point of attack could allow Antetokounmpo to dominate as a driver, roll man and offensive rebounder. Brooklyn showed flashes of engaged on-ball defense and crisp off-ball rotations against Boston, but slowing Milwaukee is a different challenge altogether.

That may all matter little if Brooklyn’s offense is at its best. The theory of this team is that it will always be able to outscore you, defensive shortcomings be damned. That premise will be tested in earnest for the first time against Milwaukee, whose superior defense and slightly less explosive offense may be just enough to edge past their most threatening competition in the East.

The Blazers need a smarter Jusuf Nurkić

Overshadowed by the spectacle of Damian Lillard’s 55 points and Nikola Jokić’s steady offensive dominance down the stretch of the Nuggets’ win over the Blazers Tuesday night was the notable absence of another one of the series’ most crucial players. Jusuf Nurkić sat the final 14 minutes of the contest, having fouled out with four minutes to play in regulation trying to deter an Aaron Gordon dunk. It was Nurkić’s sixth foul in just 24 minutes of action, and his third time fouling out of a game this series. That trend cannot persist if the Blazers are to have any chance of staving off elimination in the next two games, and Portland needs a smarter approach from its center against the NBA’s craftiest and most skilled big man.

Nurkić is arguably the most important defender on a team desperately lacking defensive talent. He has both the length and bulk to both deter drivers at the rim and stonewall his man in the post. He’s usually in the right places in pick-and-roll coverage and as a weak-side defender. Most importantly, he’s a significant defensive upgrade over every other center on Portland’s roster.

The Blazers owned the second-worst defense in the NBA this regular season, but that mark improved to a top-seven level with Nurkić on the court; they’ve outscored the Nuggets by 54 points with him on the floor in this series. The issue is how scarcely he’s been available.

Portland’s strategy of single-covering Jokić, denying his passing lanes and forcing him into difficult shots is almost entirely dependent upon Nurkić’s ability to credibly defend this season’s MVP, but Nurkić has played just 28 minutes per game over five contests against Denver, and most of his 25 fouls have been the result of poorly-timed reaches, miscalculated risks or otherwise undisciplined plays on either end of the floor. Sometimes he positions himself well, only to negate that effort with a needless hack; others he meanders out of position, then has no recourse but to foul:

It’s difficult to walk the line between aggression and recklessness, and Portland certainly needs the former from Nurkić. But so many of his fouls could be avoided without sacrificing his aggression if only Nurkić would take a smarter approach to pursuing the play. Occasionally, he’ll fail to recognize a charge risk, or carelessly push and grab opponents for no apparent reason:

The less time Nurkić can play, the more Terry Stotts must lean on Covington, Enes Kanter and Carmelo Anthony as primary defenders. Not only are all three ill-suited to withstand Jokić’s array of spins, pump fakes, jumpers and other wizardry, but Kanter and Anthony are also hopeless protecting the rim or corralling ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll. Jokić is the kind of offensive savant who gives even the best defenders headaches, and Nurkić isn’t a panacea to Portland’s defensive woes. The Blazers’ perimeter defenders give him plenty of messes to clean up, but Nurkić doesn’t have to compound those issues with his own lack of discipline.

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