After strong playoff debut, Nets' Big Three braces for Bucks

MIAMI, FLORIDA - MAY 27: Giannis Antetokounmpo #34 of the Milwaukee Bucks in action against the Miami Heat during the third quarter in Game Three of the Eastern Conference first-round playoff series at American Airlines Arena on May 27, 2021 in Miami

Five games against Boston were nearly as many as Brooklyn's Big Three played together in the regular season, so the Nets are far from a finished product.

The Nets don't have the luxury of time.

Then again, nobody else has the luxury of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden.

"I think if us three are on the same page and play well and we can communicate with the rest of the guys, where to be on both ends of the ball, I take our chances against anybody," Harden said.

The Nets closed out the first series with their three superstars by beating the Celtics 123-109 on Tuesday night in Game 5 in the best-of-seven series. They will open their first appearance in the Eastern Conference semifinals since 2014 on Saturday against Milwaukee.

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The Bucks swept a two-game series from the Nets in Milwaukee in May while Harden was sidelined. Both he and Durant had lengthy absences in the second half of the season, limiting them and Irving to a combined eight games together.

In fact, the Nets had so many players in and out of the lineup that the starting five they used against the Celtics never started a game in the regular season.

Brooklyn can shoot its way around most of its flaws, but can't count on that against Milwaukee. The Bucks are the only team in the league that scores more than the Nets, averaging 120.1 points to Brooklyn's 118.6 during the regular season.

That's why the defensive commitment and improvement Durant saw against the Celtics could be so important against the third-seeded Bucks.

"We’re going to need that even more going into the next series and it’s all about progressing every day for us," Durant said.

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Harden had 34 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in Game 5, the first triple-double by a Nets player other than Jason Kidd in the postseason. Irving scored 25 points and Durant had 24.

Those 83 points were just shy of the 85.9 they averaged in the first four games, though far off the 104 they rang up in Game 4 that matched the highest total for a trio in NBA postseason history.

All three hit 3-pointers during the game-breaking 11-2 run midway through the fourth quarter that turned an eight-point lead into a 17-point cushion in less than 90 seconds.

It was the kind of highlight that was envisioned when Harden was traded to the Nets in January. But there were too few chances to deliver them, with the Big Three going more than three months between appearances because of injuries.

"When I first got traded here, the excitement and the vision of us playing together, I think that’s what we were missing the whole season," Harden said.

The first round was a glimpse of what they could do, but it was against an overmatched Boston team that was already missing Jaylen Brown going into the series and lost Kemba Walker during it.

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The Bucks will bring to Brooklyn two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, a team that was even more impressive than the Nets in the first round by sweeping reigning Eastern Conference champion Miami.

"We’re going to challenge each other," Durant said. "You know they’re going to challenge us and vice versa, so may the best team win."