When word began to spread that Brooklyn Nets superstar James Harden would miss the team’s Game 2 matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday due to “right hamstring tightness,” they’ll never admit it, but I bet a sigh of relief circulated throughout the Bucks’ locker room.
“He has high hopes and he wants to be back ASAP,” Nets coach Steve Nash said on Sunday. “Now, I think we want to protect James, too. We want to make sure he’s right.”
Sadly, Milwaukee’s respite would be short-lived because as soon as the Nets hit the court on Monday, things got ugly quick. By the end of the first quarter, the score was 36-19—thanks in part to a 13-point eruption from Kevin Durant—and it only got uglier from there. By the end of the game, Durant poured 32 points into the collection plate (in only three quarters of work), Kyrie Irving added 22 himself, and the Nets led by as many as 49 in the most lopsided win in franchise history. Did I mention that Brooklyn held the league’s highest-scoring team to a jaw-dropping 34 points below their season average?
“For the most part we just did what we were supposed to do,” Durant told reporters after his team’s 125-86 beatdown. “Win two at home and we’ve got to see if this game is going to travel on the road for us and we’ve got to stay locked in.”
Falling behind 0-2 in their series isn’t an automatic death sentence—as the Clippers just proved in their gritty series against the Dallas Mavericks—but shieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeet, it’s never a good sign when your opponent is short one of the best players in the league and is still beating your ass with minimal effort.
On the offensive end, the Nets destroyed the Bucks’ defense at will off the dribble then fed the ball outside for uncontested jumpers (Brooklyn shot 52 percent from the floor and connected on 21 treys from deep, at a 50 percent clip). And on the defensive end, they made up for Jeff Green’s absence by packing the paint with bodies to render Giannis Antetokounmpo inept—something the Miami Heat excelled at a year ago when they muscled the Bucks out of the playoffs in a gentlemen’s sweep, but failed miserably at repeating this postseason, getting swept themselves.
“We feel like we’re better than the way we’re playing and we know that,” Bucks guard Jrue Holiday told reporters after he finished crying in the car. “But at this point, we can’t really be down. We’ve got to stay positive.”
“In the locker room, there’s a lot of great leadership,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “The guys will respond appropriately.”
In Phoenix, the Suns orchestrated their own massacre that was far more lopsided than the final score of 122-105 would indicate. Instead of relying on another 47-point explosion from superstar Devin Booker, “Point God” Chris Paul coordinated an efficient balanced attack in which four different players finished with at least 20 points.
Once the game resumed after halftime, the Nuggets never stood a chance.
“It was fun to get out there and be involved,” Paul said. “That last series [against the Lakers]—that was tough. But I’m glad to be back helping the team.”
The sold-out crowd of 16,000 at Phoenix Suns Arena also played a key role in the Suns’ Game 1 win, as they willed the team to victory while Paul struggled early with his ailing shoulder.
“This crowd is crazy,” Paul said. “There’s nothing like it. This is why we fought so hard during the regular season to get home-court advantage.”
Presumptive league MVP Nikola Jokic accepted the blame for Denver’s shortcomings in the second half and admitted he should’ve been much more aggressive.
“When things aren’t going our way, we need to be more decisive,” he said. “We need to know what we are doing as a group.”
“We did some good things but obviously we were unable to sustain it for 48 minutes,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “We all collectively have to better, a lot more physical, a lot more disciplined if we want to win in Game 2.”
That’s a tall order with guard Jamal Murray out for the season with a torn ACL, but expect a much more competitive game when the Suns and Nuggets resume war on Wednesday.