Milwaukee Bucks survive instant classic to make Eastern Conference Finals

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Before these NBA playoffs began, Giannis Antetokounmpo was asked if he thought his Milwaukee Bucks were better prepared for the postseason this year, after the disappointments that befell them each of the past two years.

“I don’t know if this year is gonna be different,” Antetokounmpo said. “I’m not gonna lie to you. It might be the same. Who knows.

“The results are gonna talk for themselves in the end.”

It turned out that he was right — just not in the way he may have expected.

Behind 40 points, 13 rebounds and five assists from their star, the Bucks came into Barclays Center Saturday night and survived an instant classic of a Game 7 against the Brooklyn Nets, winning 115-111 in overtime to advance to the Eastern Conference finals.

It only took overcoming the ultimate gut punch — an insane Kevin Durant turnaround jumper over perfect defense by P.J. Tucker with a second to go in regulation to tie the game — and surviving a marathon contest that saw multiple players on both teams hit 50 minutes played, including Durant and James Harden, who played all 53 minutes.

Durant scored 48 points, setting a new NBA scoring record in a Game 7.

Ultimately, though, it was the Bucks who got buckets from Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton in the final 72 seconds of overtime — plus Durant missing nearly the same shot with 0.3 seconds to go in the extra session — to survive and move on to face either the Philadelphia 76ers or Atlanta Hawks Wednesday in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.

This game, like most Game 7s, quickly devolved into a tense, physical affair, with both teams struggling to get consistent offense going outside of its stars — and those stars playing virtually every minute of the game. The result was a performance that felt more like an endurance contest than a basketball game for all involved.

Durant and Harden never left the game, while Middleton sat for 39 seconds. And, as the night wore on, the weary legs were evident on both sides, with plenty of hands on knees and hips as the game stretched into the fourth quarter, and every player that hit the floor taking a moment to collect themselves before slowly climbing to their feet.

But, try as both teams might to extend the lead, neither was able to do so by more than a few points, swapping the lead more than 10 times, plus several other ties.

It was a fitting capstone to a series that, while not quite the epic battle it was billed to be before it began, has still featured plenty of drama throughout from two teams that were on a collision course to meet in this series for the final couple months of the regular season.

The Nets led for most of the fourth quarter before Jrue Holiday — who struggled immensely throughout the game — finally arrived when it mattered most.

Holiday, who at one point was 2-for-17, assisted on an Antetokounmpo bucket to tie the game, then hit the biggest shot in decades in Milwaukee basketball — a three on the left wing — that gave the Bucks the lead for good with 2:32 remaining.

He immediately followed that up with a baseline jumper on the following possession, as he and Durant went back-and-forth on multiple possessions.

But Durant, who played the entire game for a second time in five days here at Barclays Center, went up for a jumper with 1:08 remaining that got poked away by Tucker, and Middleton knocked down a pair of free throws at the other end to push Milwaukee’s lead back to four.

Durant then missed a jumper at the other end — only to be bailed out when the Bucks couldn’t corral the defensive rebound. He didn’t miss the second time, however, going baseline and hitting a pull-up jumper to make it 109-107 with 42.3 seconds left.

The same thing then happened at the other end, as Middleton missed a jumper, but Milwaukee managed to corral the offensive rebound. Unlike the Nets, however, the Bucks couldn’t take advantage, as after the Bucks took a timeout to draw up a play with 2.1 to go on the shot clock, Brook Lopez got stuck in the corner and Brooklyn forced a shot clock violation.

It was a mistake the Bucks would live to regret, as Durant unloaded a truly iconic shot, hitting a turnaround jumper over Tucker — though with his foot just stepping over the 3-point line — to tie the game with a second to go, raising his arms to the rafters as he backpedaled the other way.

That still left the Bucks with a chance to avoid overtime. But, after another timeout, Milwaukee didn’t fare any better, with Antetokounmpo being swarmed and flinging up a prayer that hit the side of the backboard, sending the game to overtime.

The extra session was as ugly as one would expect with both teams having players hit more than 50 minutes in the game. The only points – by either team – was a Bruce Brown putback layup on an offensive rebound on Brooklyn’s first possession until Antetokounmpo scored over Durant in the post with just over a minute to go.

Then, after Lopez blocked a Durant layup and Joe Harris missed a wide-open 3-pointer off the offensive rebound at the other end, Middleton got inside the free-throw line and calmly knocked down a jumper to give the Bucks back the lead with 40.1 seconds to go.

Durant twice had a chance to tie the game for the Nets. This time, however, the results were different. First, he missed a mid-range jumper that would’ve tied it with 34.7 seconds to go. Then, after Middleton missed what would have been a game-clinching jumper at the other end, Durant found himself in the exact same situation: the ball at the top of the key, and a chance to tie or win the game.

This time, however, he missed short. The ball went harmlessly bounced out of bounds with 0.3 seconds to go. And, one lengthy review and a couple of foul shots later, Brooklyn’s season was over.

It was a deflating ending for a season that began for Brooklyn with more anticipation and excitement surrounding the franchise than at any point it moved into New York City from New Jersey nine years ago. After Durant spent a year on the sidelines recovering from the torn Achilles tendon he suffered during Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals, and Irving missing most of last season after shoulder surgery, this would be the first time the two stars would share the court together since deciding to team up.

Already facing championship expectations, the Nets gave those hopes a massive shot of rocket fuel in mid-January, when Brooklyn swung a blockbuster trade to acquire Harden from the Houston Rockets in exchange for guard Caris LeVert, center Jarrett Allen and a bevy of future first-round draft picks.

Brooklyn, however, spent all season trying to figure things out on the fly, as first-year coach Steve Nash was forced to play a different lineup virtually every game as the Nets dealt with one injury after another — including to their Big 3, who only finished the season with 15 games played together.

That unfortunate injury luck carried over to the playoffs — and specifically to this showdown with the Bucks. Just 43 seconds into Game 1, Harden re-injured the right hamstring that kept him out for several weeks late in the regular season, only for Irving to then suffer a sprained right ankle when he landed on Antetokounmpo’s foot midway through the second quarter of Game 4 that brought his series to a premature end.

Milwaukee, on the other hand, also entered this season with plenty of pressure on its collective shoulders. After the Bucks flamed out in the playoffs each of the past two years — losing four straight to fall to the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals and then being bounced from the NBA’s bubble at the Walt Disney World Resorts last summer in the Eastern Conference semifinals by the Miami Heat — coach Mike Budenholzer was told to make sure that, this time, his team was better prepared for the challenges that arise in the playoffs. And general manager Jon Horst made a huge swing of his own, sending Eric Bledsoe and several first-round picks to the New Orleans Pelicans for Holiday, one of the league’s best two-way guards.

It was a formula Milwaukee hoped would produce different results this time around. Saturday night, that proved to be the case.

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