Bucks eliminate Nets from NBA playoffs

By Sopan Deb

The Milwaukee Bucks are headed to the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals after defeating the Brooklyn Nets, 115-111, in overtime in New York on Saturday night in a decisive Game 7 of their semifinal series.

Giannis Antetokounmpo led the way for the Bucks, scoring 40 points and grabbing 13 rebounds, allowing Milwaukee to withstand another masterful showing from Kevin Durant, who countered with 48 points and nine rebounds of his own.

Durant repeatedly exploited screen-and-rolls, and deftly used his post-up game to befuddle the Bucks defense. The deafening Barclays Center crowd roared when Durant hit a long jumper to tie the game with 1 second left in regulation to send the game to overtime. But the Nets, whose bench players scored no points and attempted no shots all game, were outscored in overtime, 6-2, and lost.

It was a disappointing end to the series for the No. 2-seeded Nets, who entered the playoffs primed to make a championship run with their stars at last seemingly healthy at the same time. Their best three players — James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Durant — played only eight games together during the regular season because of injuries and other absences.

The Nets started the series favored against the third-seeded Bucks, but once again, injuries to the stars piled up, increasing the potential for an upset.

In Game 1, James Harden left after less than a minute because of a right hamstring strain. Nonetheless, the Nets won the first two games of the series at home in convincing fashion.

Then the Bucks squeezed out a win at home in Game 3. And in Game 4, the Nets lost Irving to a sprained ankle in the first half. The Nets also lost the game and appeared to be losing momentum with the best-of-seven series suddenly tied at two.

But in Game 5, Durant put together one of the greatest playoff performances ever, finishing with 49 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists. Harden surprisingly returned for that game but was largely ineffective. The Bucks led by as many as 17 points, only for Durant to snuff out their lead almost single-handedly in the second half. Jeff Green emerged to fill some of the gap left by Irving, scoring a playoff-career-high 27 points, the most points off the bench by a Net in postseason history.

The Bucks struck back with strong performances from their stars in Game 6, with Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday scoring 89 of the Bucks’ 104 points.

Throughout the series, the Nets tried to take advantage of Antetokounmpo’s ineffectiveness as a shooter, a weakness that has vexed him throughout several playoff runs. Defenders routinely left him open on the perimeter or sent him to the free-throw line, where he also struggled. That made Antetokounmpo, a two-time MVP award winner, less of a threat late in games.

But Antetokounmpo still managed to have one of the best series of his career. Through the first six games, he averaged 30.5 points and 12.8 rebounds per game on 56.5% shooting. It was good enough to get the Bucks to a Game 7, and to the Eastern Conference finals for the second time in Antetokounmpo’s career.

The Nets had difficulty getting production from their role players, many of whom had career years. Joe Harris, one of the best shooters in the NBA, struggled all series — shooting just 35.5% from the field and only 32.5% from 3 through the first six games.

The Bucks’ series win brings them one step closer to winning their first championship since 1971, when the team was led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In the Eastern Conference finals, they will face the winner of the other semifinal matchup, between the Atlanta Hawks and the Philadelphia 76ers. That matchup was headed to a Game 7 on Sunday night, after the Sixers tied the series behind a strong performance from Seth Curry on Friday. The Eastern Conference finals are set to begin on Wednesday.

The Nets missed a chance to make their first conference finals since 2002 and 2003, when they were in New Jersey and led by Jason Kidd. Both of those years, the Nets went to the NBA Finals. They haven’t won a championship since the ABA merger in 1976.

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