Moore’s Bucks vs. Nets Series Preview: How I’m Betting the Best Teams in the NBA Playoffs
Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images. Pictured: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks and Kevin Durant #7 of the Brooklyn Nets.
Yeah, I said it.
Given the state of the Los Angeles Clippers, the unproven nature of the Utah Jazz and the meniscus tear in Joel Embiid’s right knee, this series may legitimately be the last clash of the titans we see in the playoffs.
This series features two teams that are so phenomenal in so many aspects of the game, with so much talent, that they are the two best teams left in the playoffs.
The Nets are trying to prove you can basically throw a bunch of guys with superb talent together and win a title. The Bucks are trying to finally move past their disappointments the last two seasons.
Kevin Durant. Giannis Antetokounmpo. Kyrie Irving. Jrue Holiday. James Harden. Khris Middelton.
Playing Off Joe
Since the Nets didn’t play enough games together in the regular season, trying to get useful data on their Big 3 is impossible.
But one thing is clear, they have played much better with Joe Harris on the floor regardless of how many of them are on-court:
The Bucks did not attack Harris in the regular season. He’s listed as just having contested 25 shots in the three meetings, despite playing 30-plus minutes in each game.
Donte DiVincenzo, who is out with a foot tendon injury for the remainder of the playoffs, had the most attempts against Harris of any Buck, shooting just a 22% Effective Field Goal Percentage. But really, no one else challenged him.
So then the question becomes if the Bucks can find a way to attack him. Harris was 44th percentile defending pick-and-rolls this season, but that relies on being able to attack him.
Will the Nets hide Harris on Bryn Forbes and/or Pat Connaughton? Will they let Harden or Irving take that assignment, so that they don’t have to work as much defensively?
If Harris is tasked with guarding Middleton, that’s a big win for the Bucks. If it’s Connaughton, they can track him down. Running pick-and-roll with Forbes is a bit tougher.
On the flip side, hanging with Harris defensively is a nightmare.
You have to chase him off screens. The Bucks will have to stay attached the whole time because his points are such a tipping point given all the other firepower that the Nets bring to the table. If you don’t stay attached, he’s automatic.
Anytime Forbes is on him, expect to see a lot of this:
You can’t really commit resources to him because of Brooklyn’s star players. So the Bucks will have to either play him off the floor defensively by targeting him, or commit to staying home and living with the results from the stars in isolation.
The Bucks’ Big 3
Everything for Milwaukee starts, of course, with their two-time MVP who averaged … let me see here … oh yes, 39 points per game vs. the Brooklyn Nets this season on 49% shooting.
Antetokounmpo hit 10 3’s vs. the Nets during the regular season, which is five more than his next highest total against any other team. If you take out the 10 3’s he made, Antetokounmpo only averaged … 29.6 points per game.
He led the NBA with 6.6 possessions and 4.4 shot attempts per game in transition this season. The Nets’ best chance of slowing down Giannis in transition is DeAndre Jordan.
However, that presents problems on the other side because Jordan has to play drop coverage. One league scout I spoke to thinks that’s going to create issues for the Nets.
“Jrue Holiday will tear that up because what they’ll do is wait out the drop until it’s a switch,” the scout told me. “And then you’ve got Jordan out on the perimeter vs. Jrue and it’s over. ”
“Khris (Middleton) is the guy who will absolutely rise and fire vs. that drop coverage. Go look up his numbers if the defender sinks,” a league executive advised.
Middleton averaged 1.3 points per possession (a 130 Offensive Rating is spectacular) vs. drop coverage, shooting 52.7% on such plays. That’s how the Bucks will attack the Nets if they go big.
If they attempt to go small instead with Blake Griffin, Antetokounmpo simply has too much athleticism for him:
The best way to neutralize Antetokounmpo is to get him into foul trouble on charges. The Nets averaged the seventh-most charges drawn per game this season, but only managed two vs. the Bucks.
“If they are comfortable and are spreading the ball around, they are really hard to defend. That’s when Joe Harris, Claxton, and guys like that go off,” a scout told me.
That’s where Milwaukee’s switch comes in. The Bucks showed very little switch vs. Durant in the regular season, opting to put two on-ball, and he torched it. The advantage of a switch, however, is there are no moving parts, which means your perimeter defenders can stay home.
Milwaukee may wind up starting PJ Tucker in this series, and even if they don’t, Tucker will spend a significant amount of time guarding Durant. Durant absolutely torched Tucker in the regular season, making 11-of-15 shots.
Let’s just say it wasn’t pretty:
If it becomes apparent that Tucker is drawing the main assignment on Durant, that should be a signal to bet Durant props in this series. But it also means the Nets aren’t getting that ball moving side to side.
Much of the series will be about the Bucks trying to resist sending help vs. the Big 3 and staying with their principles. There’s only so much you can do; Irving will hit crazy layups even if you bring help, Durant will hit pull-up shots even if you switch and Harden will do what he does in isolation.
But the Bucks have the weaponry to counter that as long as the Nets aren’t also getting big games from Harris et al.
The other key is whoever replaces DiVincenzo. Whether it’s Forbes or Connaughton, they’ll be hunted if the Bucks go to a switching scheme.
“Gotta give Brooklyn credit: they do as good of a job as anyone finding and exploiting the mismatch,” a personnel exec said.
“They’re willing to screen with whoever to get what they want, which is KD vs. someone small, which forces help, and that frees up Kyrie because he’s so quick and Harden because he’s so crafty,” another said.
Series Price: Bucks +165
I think the Bucks are live in this series, and I bet them at +185 at a book earlier in the week. You can still find them somewhere between there and +160. The series win spreads are sharper, but Bucks +1.5 wins at -136 (DraftKings) also has value and allows for the Nets to come out on top in a seven-game series.
The Bucks’ firepower is what’s being underestimated. Durant, Harden, and Irving are clearly elite scorers, but two of those three are subpar defenders, while Middleton, Holiday, and Antetokounmpo are all stellar on defense.
The Bucks just have more counters than the Nets. That’s fine for Brooklyn since they’re not trying to find matchup advantages beyond forcing a switch onto Forbes or Connaughton if he’s playing, they’ll just score because they’re great.
But going from the completely outmatched Boston Celtics to this Bucks team is a stark adjustment. The Bucks can matchup hunt vs. a switch with Holiday and Middleton, and Antetokounmpo doesn’t really have a counter on the Nets, especially with Jeff Green out with injury.
If you like the Nets, you can get them -1.5 (to win in six or better) at +110. The books have definitely priced the series outcomes to elicit Nets money.
Quarter by Quarter
Durant plays the entire first and third quarters, then sits to start the second and forth until about the six-minute mark. (He may return earlier in the fourth.) Harris, who I mentioned as a crucial part of this series, plays fewer minutes in the second quarter than in any other period.
Meanwhile, the Bucks being the second quarter with Middleton and Antetokounmpo on-court after Mike Budenholzer takes them off floor late in the first.
Simply put, there’s value on the Nets in first quarters and the Bucks in second quarters.
Overs on Antetokounmpo need to be the starting point. I’m fine with the idea of waiting to see if the Nets can build a wall to stop him instead of assuming they can’t, but the prior has to be that Antetokounmpo will get whatever he wants.
The Bucks may try and keep Brook Lopez on the floor early, which means they’ll have to bring help and that will lead to assist opportunities for Brooklyn. But keep an eye out as the series progresses. If the Bucks are struggling and decide to switch, those assists will drop and the Big 3 scoring will increase.
Every Nets big man should be faded on points; the Nets scored just 36.4 points per 100 possessions in the paint in the regular season vs. Milwaukee, their lowest rate against any team.
Likewise, I would expect Forbes to be rendered pretty unplayable quickly. He was huge in the Miami series, but the Nets will hunt the mismatch more aggressively.
This series has the most firepower, the most stars, the most intrigue. It should be an absolutely massive clash between the Bucks’ versatility and the Nets’ raw firepower. I lean towards the Bucks, but regardless of who wins, I’ll be betting the winner’s title odds immediately afterward.