Milwaukee Bucks use ‘defense first’ mentality to get critical win over Brooklyn Nets

The Milwaukee Bucks are still breathing in the playoffs — barely.

Already trailing 2-0 in an Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Brooklyn Nets, and finding themselves trailing by 3 with 83 seconds to go in Game 3 Thursday night at Fiserv Forum after a Kevin Durant 3-pointer, the Bucks scored the final six points of the game to emerge with an 86-83 victory to claw their way back into this best-of-seven affair.

And afterward, Bucks guard Jrue Holiday — who hit the go-ahead layup with 11.3 seconds to go — said that if Milwaukee needs to continue to make it ugly to grind out victories on the defensive end moving forward in this series, the Bucks will be more than happy to do so.

“Defense first,” Holiday said. “Defense wins games, and it wins championships. I think to be able to get a stop even down with two seconds left means a lot. Them scoring 83 points, I feel like for us that’s the type of defense we want to play.

“If we got to muck up the game, then we got to muck it up. But when it comes down to it, we want to be aggressive on everyone.”

After the Nets breezed their way past the Bucks in each of the first two games of this series in Brooklyn, as the series shifted back to Milwaukee, it was clear from the moment the game began the home team was desperate to make sure the tone was different in this one. The Bucks, led by P.J. Tucker, who spent most of the night guarding Durant, came out far more aggressive — at both ends — to jump out to a 30-11 lead, only to score 56 points in the final 36 minutes as Brooklyn slowly dragged itself back into the game.

The result was a game that resembled something out of the 1990s more than the 2020s, with lots of tough defense and long stretches with no made baskets on either side.

All that mattered to Milwaukee, though, was that Durant, who finished with 30 points but shot only 11-for-28 from the field, had his final shot of the game hit off the back of the rim as the buzzer sounded, allowing the Bucks to give themselves a chance to even the series at two games apiece when these teams meet again Sunday in Game 4.

“Shoot, man, they did what they were supposed to do: Come out aggressive, backs against the wall, and we had to weather that storm,” said Kyrie Irving, who had 22 points in 45 minutes. “So, definitely kind of put us on our heels for the rest of the game just playing catch-up, playing their style of basketball, and then they made some big timely shots, which carried them forward.

“But we had our chances down the stretch. It was a possession-by-possession game. Both teams battling. So that’s a good ol’ fashioned playoff game right there.”

Style points don’t count for anything in playoff games — which is a good thing, because this game wasn’t exactly overflowing with them. Only five players finished in double figures — Durant, Irving and Bruce Brown (16 points) for the Nets, and Khris Middleton (35) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (33) for Milwaukee. For most of the first half, the rest of Milwaukee’s roster combined to make one field goal. Things weren’t much better for Brooklyn, which fell behind 30-11 after the first quarter, only to storm back into the game with a big second quarter of its own.

Brown, who has been the unsung hero for Brooklyn in this series after replacing injured star James Harden in the starting lineup, repeatedly had success throughout the game getting into the lane for floaters.

But in the final seconds, Brown missed a pull-up jumper that could’ve given the Nets a 3-point lead with 20.8 seconds go, was beat by Holiday for the go-ahead layup with 11.3 seconds to go and then, after the inbounds pass was nearly turned over by Brooklyn, Brown wound up taking the ball to the basket and missing a layup with 6.4 seconds to go.

“It was a tough, tough playoff game where neither team was really shooting the ball well, creating good opportunities,” Nets coach Steve Nash said.

“Someone was gonna win ugly and it was them tonight.”

The only thing the Bucks were focused on was getting a win, period, after two rough games in Brooklyn — especially the 39-point shellacking Milwaukee absorbed in Game 2. And while the Bucks managed to do that, it didn’t come without some tense moments.

Part of that was because of the lack of production from the rest of the Bucks’ offense, as the team outside of Middleton and Antetokounmpo combined to score 18 points on 8-for-34 shooting overall, including 2-for-17 from 3-point range, and took (and missed) just one free throw.

“Try to get in the paint and make something happen,” Holiday said of his offensive mindset, after he went 4-for-14 and scored 9 points in 46 minutes. “But I do think at some point today I got a little bit discouraged because I’m getting in there and put it in there and my shots aren’t falling.”

And part of that was because of Antetokounmpo’s ongoing struggles shooting both from the perimeter and the free throw line. Antetokounmpo took a playoff-career-high 8 3-pointers Thursday — making only one, which came early in the fourth quarter. He also went 4-for-9 from the foul line, and he was called for a 10-second violation for the second time in the playoffs that removed another possible attempt from his ledger.

But Antetokounmpo said that as long as teams are going to play off of him, he’s going to have to continue to make the right play — which, he said, would sometimes include taking 3s.

“It’s all about instinct,” said Anteokounmpo, who also had 14 rebounds, 2 assists and 5 turnovers in 43 minutes. “Basketball is all about instincts. At the end of the day, my instinct is telling me that’s the right decision to take it, I’ll live with that.

“It’s the same … like, everybody, if you wake up in the morning and think you’ve got to drink a cup of coffee, and that’s what you want to do, that’s what your instinct is telling you, that’s what your soul is telling you. Whatever the case may be, that’s what you do. You know, it doesn’t matter what happens next, because you live with the decision you make.

“And at the end of the day, I was just trying to make the right decision in the right moment and today it was shooting 8 3s, and next game it was shooting zero 3s. Who knows? I’m just going to try to keep making the right decision.”

After the Bucks managed to get themselves back into this series with a win, Antetokounmpo was just happy to be able to go home and celebrate a victory that kept Milwaukee’s chances of advancing out of the second round alive. No team has come back from a 3-0 playoff series deficit in NBA history.

“A win is a win,” he said. “Today we didn’t score a lot, but at the end of the day, we got a win and that’s all we came for tonight. We knew it was a very, very tough game, and we needed this game as much as possible, and hopefully we get the next one.

“But at the end of the day, a win is a win. When you can go back home and celebrate a W … it feels good.”

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Tagged Brooklyn, Bucks, critical, defense, mentality, Milwaukee, Nets, win