The Milwaukee Bucks continue to have the Brooklyn Nets' number after their 121-109 victory on Friday night at Barclays Center.
This was the second matchup between two of the Eastern Conference's best teams. The Bucks won the first meeting 127-104 on opening night.
Milwaukee came into Friday having lost back-to-back games to the Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors. The defending champs are currently playing without Jrue Holiday, George Hill, Pat Connaughton, Grayson Allen and head coach Mike Budenholzer, who are all in the NBA's health and safety protocols.
The Nets are one of the few teams that don't currently have anyone in the health and safety protocols. Kyrie Irving was unable to play in this game because he refuses to comply with New York City's COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
Brooklyn ended its three-game losing streak on Wednesday against the Indiana Pacers. Irving, Kevin Durant and James Harden combined to score 79 points in a 129-121 victory.
After Friday's result, the Nets have now lost four of their last five games. They are effectively tied with the Bucks for second in the Eastern Conference standings, though Brooklyn still has the edge by percentage points.
All five Bucks starters were at least plus-16 in the win. Bobby Portis had a double-double of 25 points and 12 rebounds. Giannis Antetokounmpo put up 31 points and nine assists.
Durant did his part to keep the Nets in the game. He scored 29 points on 10-of-19 shooting, but the rest of the starting five combined for just 40 points. The team shot 6-of-27 from three-point range.
Notable Game Stats
- Antetokounmpo (MIL): 31 points (11-of-17 FG), 9 assists, 7 rebounds
- Portis (MIL): 25 points (9-of-16 FG), 12 rebounds
- Middleton (MIL): 20 points (6-of-15 FG), 6 rebounds, 5 assists
- Durant (BKN): 29 points (10-of-19 FG), 9 rebounds, 7 assists
- Harden (BKN): 16 points (6-of-15 FG), 9 rebounds, 7 assists
- Cam Thomas (BKN): 14 points (6-of-12 FG), 5 rebounds
Portis' Big Game Adds to Stellar Season
When the Bucks are playing at their best, odds are good it will be because Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Middleton are dominating on both ends of the court.
Certainly, Antetokounmpo and Middleton played well against the Nets. Middleton really came to life after a slow start with 15 points in the third quarter after scoring just five in the first half.
But this game was a showcase for Portis, what he has brought to the Bucks all season and why the Nets could be in trouble if these two teams meet again in the postseason.
Portis is quietly putting together the best season of his career. The 26-year-old entered Friday averaging a career-high 15.3 points and 8.9 rebounds per game in 31 appearances.
Those numbers will go up after a dominant outing against the Nets. Portis led all players in plus-minus at plus-27 in 32 minutes.
As potent as the Nets offense can be, especially at full strength with Irving, it's an open secret their lack of size is a problem. They had a small starting lineup with Nic Claxton and David Duke Jr. playing with Durant, Harden and Patty Mills.
If things remain as they are throughout the postseason, Irving won't be available to play for Nets home games in a potential series with Milwaukee. The Bucks have had no problems handling them this season, winning both head-to-head games by a combined 35 points.
Portis is a key difference-maker for the Bucks, especially if they have to go through Brooklyn to repeat as NBA champions.
Harden's Struggles Highlight Issues for Nets
The general feeling around the Nets coming into the season was they could get by without Irving for a significant period of time because Durant and Harden are two of the best players in the NBA.
Durant has more than lived up to his billing. The 11-time All-Star is arguably the MVP favorite right now with a league-leading 30.0 points per game entering Friday. He had an efficient game against a good Bucks defense.
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
Kevin Durant has 19 points at halftime against Milwaukee. The rest of the Nets starting lineup has 17.<br><br>Durant entered Friday having outscored the rest of his team's starters in 4 games this season, second only to Stephen Curry (5 games) for most in the NBA. <a href="https://t.co/3toNfLlgwV">pic.twitter.com/3toNfLlgwV</a>
The problem was everything around Durant, most notably Harden. He's shown no signs of figuring out what has made him so inconsistent all season. The former NBA MVP shot just 6-of-15 from the field, his fourth consecutive game making fewer than 42 percent of his attempts.
In addition to his shooting woes, Harden isn't doing a very good job of running Brooklyn's offense when he's in the role of point guard.
Harden remains capable of being a dominant player, but he's only doing it in brief flashes. The 32-year-old drove to the basket for a tough layup by getting around Antetokounmpo in the second quarter.
Brooklyn is still operating from a position of power right now. This team is still right with the Bucks for the No. 2 seed in the east and will have Irving for most of its road games the rest of this season.
Durant has proved he's capable of putting a team on his back if needed. But the point of having a trio with Harden and Irving was to ease the burden on him.
Instead, the Nets find themselves relying on Durant more than anyone would have expected. Harden doesn't have to play at an MVP level for the Nets to be the best version of themselves, but his ongoing shooting woes should be a concern for them.
The Bucks will play the Charlotte Hornets at Spectrum Center on Saturday night at 7 p.m. ET. The Nets will host the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday at 12 p.m. ET.