Even with James Harden back in the Nets’ lineup for Game 5 on Tuesday, the Bucks looked as dominant as they had in the previous two games of their Eastern Conference semifinal series.
When the first half ended, three Milwaukee players had double-digit points. Giannis Antetokounmpo was just three rebounds from a double-double. Milwaukee held a 59-43 lead over Brooklyn, and Bucks fans were salivating at the prospect of eliminating the Nets in Game 6 on Thursday.
But it was a tale of two halves. Even with a clearly limping Harden struggling to make an impact, Kevin Durant left, the Nets scored 71 points in the second half and the Bucks collapsed. Now, they are back at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee and they need a win to avoid an embarrassing elimination.
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In the first half, Antetokounmpo scored 17 points, with Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday adding 14 and 10, respectively, as the team shot a collective 53.7 percent from the field and a perfect 7-of-7 from the free throw line. On the other side of the court, the defense was doing its part. Durant racked up 18 points, but the Bucks had no trouble keeping Harden scoreless and forcing the nets to shoot just 35 percent from the field overall.
So what went wrong in the second half? Durant could not be stopped. He finished with 49 points, 17 rebounds, 10 assists, three steals and two blocks in 48 minutes of action. Perhaps the best example of Durant’s Game 5 heroism: a hard-fought 3-pointer with 52 seconds to go that put the nets by four.
Stopping Durant is not an easy task. He’s a future Hall of Famer for a reason. But the Bucks’ struggles went beyond witnessing a landmark performance by KD.
They also couldn’t stay on the offensive. Antetokounmpo again had 17 in the second half, but outside of his score, he struggled to make his usual impact. He had as many rebounds in the fourth quarter (two) as turnovers. He dropped a pass from Middleton that likely would have resulted in a point-blank layup to tie the game at 109 with less than 20 seconds to go.
And then there were the free throws. The Nets made sure the two-time MVP didn’t get easy paint splashes. Twice in the last minute and a half of play, Antetokounmpo was fouled and only hit two of four, allowing the nets to effectively take a basket in close play. (He got 4 out of 7 total).
But the fault is not only Antetokounmpo. The crisp pass that helped get him and others to open just wasn’t there in the second half. Holiday had three assists in the fourth quarter, but the rest of the team dished out just two. The Bucks were charged for nine fouls in the fourth quarter. The nets were whistled for four.
In total, when the second half ended, the Bucks had been outscored 71-49, and the Nets had shot 64.9 percent from the field compared to 45.2 percent from the Bucks. The Nets had 16 assists in the second half, while Milwaukee had just eight.
However, there is still reason for hope. The Bucks have not lost at home this postseason and the Nets are not in top form. But even if the Bucks manage to win Game 6, they would still have to beat the Nets again in Brooklyn to advance to the Eastern Conference finals.
After that second-half performance, it’s fair to wonder if Milwaukee could close out a game with the series on the line.