The Milwaukee Bucks continued to hold serve on their home court against the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday, notching a 107-96 victory in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals to even the series at 2-2.
The win helped the Bucks avoid the brink of elimination as the series shifts back to Brooklyn for Game 5. Only 13 teams have ever come back to win a series after going down 3-1. However, the Denver Nuggets did it twice last year, becoming the first team ever to win back-to-back series after falling to 3-1. Milwaukee won't have to try to add itself to that list with a solid Game 4 performance.
Bucks stars Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo totaled 53 points, while Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving combined for 39.
James Harden missed his third straight game with a hamstring injury after playing just the opening minutes of Game 1. Irving exited early in the second quarter with an ankle injury and did not return to the floor.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, PF, Milwaukee Bucks: 34 points, 12 rebounds, 3 assists
Jrue Holiday, PG, Milwaukee Bucks: 14 points, 9 assists, 3 rebounds
Kevin Durant, SF, Brooklyn Nets: 28 points, 13 rebounds, 5 assists
Kyrie Irving, PG, Brooklyn Nets: 11 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists
Giannis Regains Control In Game 4
Antetokounmpo noticeably tried to expand his skill set in Game 3, launching eight attempts from behind the arc—his most in any game this postseason. It was a good idea, in theory, with Brooklyn keying in on him in the paint, but that hardly matched the reality.
The two-time MVP sank just one attempt from behind the arc, shooting 14-of-31 overall, and the Bucks escaped with an 86-83 win. On Sunday, with a chance to even the series, the Greek Freak got back to what he does best: dominating the paint on both ends of the floor.
Antetokounmpo was as unstoppable around the rim as he's been at any point this season. Despite continually taking off-balance shots and playing through foul trouble, there was little stopping the 26-year-old from picking apart the Nets defense in the paint.
The highlights speak for themselves.
Antetokounmpo missed just one look inside the restricted area with a finger-roll attempt falling short. Everything else was put through the hoop with the signature authority Antetokounmpo is known for.
But just as important as Antetokounmpo's commitment to getting in the lane was his recognition that the Nets were giving him open looks from deep for a reason. Antetokounmpo took just five three-point attempts Sunday, knocking down one.
It was the right adjustment as Milwaukee outscored the Nets 38-36 in the paint. It also helped create more space for some of the Bucks' more reliable three-point shooters to find their spots as Antetokounmpo continued to draw the defense toward him anytime he drove.
The Bucks may have shot 16-of-47 from behind the arc for the game, but those looks were created in the exact manner Milwaukee needed to in order to compete with the Nets.
All of that starts with Antetokounmpo's ability to create any look for himself in tight thanks to otherworldly length and athleticism.
After getting routed in Games 1 and 2 on the road, the Bucks finally simplified their offense at home and forced Brooklyn to adjust as the series heads back to New York.
Brooklyn's Vanishing Big 3
Game 4 started out with Brooklyn welcoming Jeff Green back to the floor for the first time in six games. Those good vibes were gone midway through the second quarter as Irving limped back to the Nets' locker room with an ankle sprain.
It might not have been the absolute worst-case scenario for head coach Steve Nash, but it was pretty close to it.
Not only did the loss of Irving completely stall out Brooklyn's offense, but what looked like a healthy and deep Nets bench heading into the postseason has found itself nearly depleted in both categories after just nine games.
After deciding earlier in the season it would be best for the team if Harden handled point guard duties, a hamstring injury in Game 1 against Milwaukee forced Irving back to the 1-spot as he and Durant attempted to steady the rotation.
While it's unclear how long Irving may be out going forward, what's obvious is the strain it puts on a backcourt already missing Harden and Spencer Dinwiddie. Mike James, Chris Chiozza and Landry Shamet will have to pick up the slack as the remaining healthy bodies available to Nash.
It won't be an easy task.
From the time Irving exited midway through the second quarter to just under 10 minutes left in regulation, the Nets offense went 12-of-32 from the field, 0-of-10 from behind the arc and committed eight turnovers.
That put Nash in the unenviable position of having to pull his starters early in the fourth quarter and essentially begin regrouping for Game 5.
Just how many players the Nets will have available by their next tipoff remains to be seen. They certainly didn't have enough to contend with Milwaukee by the end of Sunday's matchup. If Harden and Irving can't return soon, the Nets may find themselves trailing in the series after taking a 2-0 series lead in the best-of-seven.
Game 5 returns to Barclays Center on Tuesday at TNT. No tipoff time has been announced as of Sunday afternoon.