After the dismal 2-6 start to the season, the Brooklyn Nets are now just 1.5 games out of first place in the Eastern Conference standings. What a turnaround!
Brooklyn avenged its early season loss and beat the Milwaukee Bucks, who entered Friday’s contest as the #1 seed, convincingly winning 118-100 in front of a delirious Barclays Center crowd. Brooklyn’s eighth-straight victory is the longest active winning streak in the league, and it ties the longest winning streak since the Nets moved to Brooklyn. The Nets have also won 12 of their last 13 games.
“I think we’re just putting together a consistent game plan right now. Guys are filling their roles at a high level no matter who’s in the lineup. This is our group, we’re just rocking, having fun playing a great brand of basketball, doing the little things, and it’s resulting in some wins. But we just want to keep it up. We don’t want to take our foot off the gas pedal,” said Kyrie Irving. “It’s a long season, but this is a great place that we’re at right now, and we feel good.”
Nic Claxton was vastly impressive for the Nets, dropping a season-high-tying 19 points on a near-perfect 9-of-10 shooting line to go with eight rebounds, five assists, and three steals.
“Give him a lot of love for doing it on both ends of the floor for us tonight. Luxury for us to have him,” said Jacque Vaughn. “He’s growing as a young man, as a player. It’s great to see.”
Ben Simmons’ two-way presence was felt. Big time. Simmons, who has had a reputation for defending Giannis Antetokounmpo, did a nice job guarding the Bucks superstar on one end And he nearly had a triple-double with 12 points, 11 rebounds, 8 assists as well as three steals. Kevin Durant recorded a routine 24 points, which led his Nets, on 9-of-17 shooting.
“He was incredible. 12, 11 and 8, three steals. I think his aggression was good all night,” said Durant about Simmons. “Giannis is the most physical guy in the league so there’s gonna be some questionable ones there. I think he stayed with it all game, was able to make life tough and I think we all did a solid job of showing him a crowd a little bit, making him kick out and forcing him to turn the ball over, seven turnovers. So Ben’s the catalyst for that and we’re gonna need that going forward.”
Antetokounmpo led the way for the Bucks with a game-high 26 points, 13 rebounds, 7 assists, and two steals. Former Net Brook Lopez also had a nice outing with 23 points on 10-of-16 shooting.
Three-point shooting was a big factor in this one. The Bucks could not find any rhythm from three, going just 9-of-37 from distance, while the Nets nailed 43.8% of their 32 total long-distance looks. The Nets also held their own on the glass, tying the Bucks 45-45 in total rebounds.
Brooklyn’s fastbreak game was also impressive. The Bucks, led by Antetokounmpo, are always a threat to get out and hurt opponents on the break, but the Nets outpaced Milwaukee 24-13 in that category.
“For us to have more fast break points than they had where transitions were huge for their game, which meant we were playing a pretty high-level pace for us, and then we were keeping them in the halfcourt,” said Jacque Vaughn. “A really good effort from our guys and really focused pretty much three of the four quarters we outscored them so really overall a pretty clean game for us.”
Early on, Giannis could not be stopped, starting the game by picking off a bad pass from KD for a dunk plus the foul on the other end. He put up 8 early points in less than 7 minutes and tossed a gorgeous wrap-around pass to a rolling Lopez as well. Brooklyn, however, wasn’t phased by his hot start, as Royce O’Neale and Kevin Durant each hit two threes. Brooklyn finished ahead 36-29 after the first period of play.
The Nets held the advantage in the second quarter. TJ Warren gave some crucial minutes with seven quick points on a post-up against former Net Jevon Carter, a pick-and-pop three, and a midrange shot. Nic Claxton also got it going with three left-handed hook shots to give him 12 points in the first half on a perfect 6-of-6 shooting line. Meanwhile, the Bucks couldn’t buy a shot from three on just 3-of-15 shooting from distance. Brooklyn entered the half ahead, 60-47.
Brooklyn opened the third quarter on a 17-10 run to build its first 20-point lead of the game. Simmons was particularly impressive, hitting an array of difficult shots including a gorgeous hesitation-dribble, euro-step finish in transition. The Bucks then went on an 18-8 run in the final five minutes to close the quarter strong. Brooklyn’s lead was whittled down to just 10, up 85-75 heading into the fourth.
Milwaukee kept hanging around in the fourth, as the Bucks went to Lopez down low on multiple possessions. Getting Lopez going on his former home court gave the former Net some momentum, and he followed that up with two corner threes. The Nets didn’t let up, however. O’Neale hit a pair of threes to build Brooklyn’s lead back up to 16, and Kyrie Irving finally got it going after a brutal start to the game with some truly ridiculous finishes off the glass. Irving’s transition three at the 3-minute mark in the fourth quarter effectively sealed the game, and the Nets cruised to their 21st victory of the season.
The Film Room
The Nets were prepared for Milwaukee’s aggressive coverage on Friday.
The Bucks blitzed Durant repeatedly on pick-and-rolls to limit his impact, and to their credit, it worked: KD had a fairly quiet night by his standards with 24 points. But the Nets quickly adjusted, using their guards and wings as screeners to create pick-and-pop opportunities.
“Just gives us a new look,” said Durant about the Nets’ pick-and-pop offense. “Late in the clock for example, someone might run up and slip out of a screen. They might show two on me and now we’ve got a good shot late in the clock, so it’s something we can—we don’t want to rely on it too much—but we also know we’ve got that in our back pocket and just in case we don’t have much going on the offensive end of a possession. So we practice that, we work on that, and it’s on me to deliver the pass to whoever’s in that pick and roll situation, to deliver a good pass.”
Maybe the biggest benefactor of this strategy was Royce O’Neale, who made 5 threes on the night and is on a bit of a hot streak, canning 12 of his last 18 attempted long-distance shots.
Three of those five made threes came from the pick-and-pop setting mentioned above. In each clip, the Bucks send two to the ball towards Durant, and Royce ‘ghosts’ his screen and pops to the top of three. Brooklyn was particularly aggressive about using this strategy when Durant was pressed towards the sideline with O’Neale popping to the top of the arc. The third clip is located a little closer to the middle of the floor, but the general concept is the same.
“I just think it’s part of our package as an offense. The first few, we wanted to see how they played that, and they jumped out and left Royce’s body and he was able to get some space and shoot it with confidence,” said Durant. “He made some huge shots there for us in the fourth. I think those plays where you can get open and knock down a three give you confidence.”
Trading a first-round pick for O’Neale, who is shooting a career-high 41.5% from three, continues to look better by the day. O’Neale, along with many others on the Nets roster, has added a new dynamic to Brooklyn’s offense. The pick-and-pop is suddenly a weapon at the Nets’ disposal, the most dangerous it’s been since the days of Jeff Green.
As noted, the Nets eight-game winning streak is tied for the longest winning streak — ever — in the Nets’ Brooklyn history. The previous eight-game streak took place between February 10 and February 24 of last year.
The Nets 18-point winning margin over Bucks is their largest over Milwaukee (in regular season) since 2002. Nets beat Bucks by 39 in Game 2 of 2021 EC semi finals.
The Brooklyn Nets head on the road to play the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday. Coverage begins at 7 PM EST on NBA TV.
For a different perspective on tonight’s game, head to Brew Hoopour Bucks sister site.