After watching the Bucks fumble away a 17-point lead with 7:00 left in the third quarter, the question ultimately becomes whether you can trust them as a favorite in Thursday night’s Game 6 as they stare another disappointing elimination right in the eye.
Milwaukee should be looking at a pressure-free situation as it attempts to extend its home winning streak to 13 games. It hasn’t suffered a loss at Fiserv Forum since April 19, a run that includes four victories over the Nets. They’re favored despite wilting inexplicably in a second-half where Kevin Durant took over as the Bucks failed to take advantage of an obviously hobbled James Harden.
Are you willing to trust a bounce-back, much less lay the points?
Certainly, Durant putting together a performance for the ages, playing 48 minutes and delivering 49 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists, is intimidating. He put on an amazing show and went the distance just two years after suffering a torn Achilles, which is amazing.
Harden can’t play worse, if he manages to suit up at all after gutting out 46 minutes to give Brooklyn another primary ball handler and threat. He made one of 10 shots and missed all eight of his 3 point attempts.
Then there’s the fact head coach Mike Budenholzer couldn’t take advantage of an obviously hobbled Harden defensively more as Brooklyn whittled away at the deficit. With Harden playing nearly the entire game at roughly 60 percent due to a fear of his hamstring tightening up, it was wild not to see his lack of mobility exposed more. While there’s no talk of Harden sitting out Thursday’s Game 6, that could be a possibility in order to not stress out his injury.
The Bucks likely won’t have to deal with Kyrie Irving since his ankle injury is expected to linger, which is one reason they again opened as a favorite – by 3.5 points at DraftKings Sportsbook – despite such an epic collapse.
However, they’ll still have to deal with Durant.
That’s a massive task given the rhythm he was allowed to get into, something that hadn’t occurred in Milwaukee. Durant shot 20-for-53 against the Bucks in their house as Brooklyn was held to 89.5 points per game over their two losses. When Irving was injured in the first half of Game 4, a talented defense locked in on Durant and didn’t let anyone else get off either, resulting in a 9-for-25 shooting day on Sunday afternoon in 107-96 setback.
Can Durant be slowed more easily after expending so much energy in delivering Game 5 in historic
fashion? He became the first NBA player ever to register a playoff triple-double with over 45 points and 15 rebounds. Although Harden’s presence helped Jeff Green shooting 7-for-8 from 3-point range was the key x-factor, helping Brooklyn from falling even further behind in the first half and helping fuel the comeback as the biggest beneficiary to Durant drawing so much attention. He scored a playoff career- high 27 points.
That can’t be counted upon in Game 6, and Joe Harris continued to struggle, shooting 2-for-11 and 1- for-7 from 3-point range. He led the NBA in 3-point percentage during the regular season and was still shooting an impressive 45 percent from beyond the arc this postseason but continued his slump after shooting 4-for-19 in Milwaukee, including 3-for-13 from beyond the arc, scoring 11 points over their two losses. If he’s a no-show, Harden remains limited and Green can’t stay scalding hot, even Durant’s heroics won’t be able to deliver a series clincher.
It will be interesting to see what Milwaukee’s psyche will be entering Game 6. Will the Bucks come out and fight like they did after digging themselves an 0-2 hole? Or will this be a typical Giannis Antetokounmpo-led team that wilts in the playoffs when it matters most. The two-time MVP put up 34 points and 12 rebounds in Game 5 but missed key free throws, failed to take advantage of Harden in the post and fumbled away a nice pass that would’ve trimmed the deficit to two points inside 10 seconds. It wasn’t the most reassuring stretch run if you’re banking on an immediate response on Thursday night. Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez played well enough to win but Budenholzer has trimmed his rotation to seven players, choosing to cut Bobby Portis out of the mix. Clearly, there’s some fracturing going on within the group.
Tuesday’s Game 5 provided a roller-coaster of a day as far as the spread was concerned. The Bucks opened as a road favorite for the first time in the series due to Irving’s expected absence, opening as a 3.5-point chalk. The number got as high as five points at a couple of sportsbooks before the Harden news that he’d been upgraded to ‘doubtful’ and then ultimately ‘questionable’ resulted in the market flooding money back onto Brooklyn. The line closed at Bucks -1.5 at DraftKings and even -1 at Westgate.
The total, which had come down as low as 217.5 at numerous books, also soared to 222, its closing point. That’s ironically right where the final number landed, as the Nets won 114-108. Most who bet the ‘over’ hoping Harden would play were fortunate in getting rewarded by Durant’s exploits and the Brooklyn comeback creating a situation where the game was extended.
The Nets’ series price is now -330 at FanDuel Sportsbook after Milwaukee opened Tuesday as -184 favorite. This is an awfully strange best-of-seven. If you believe the Bucks will ultimately take advantage of Brooklyn’s
hobbled state and overcome Durant’s brilliance, now is the time to hop in Milwaukee at plus money.
Ultimately, you’re trusting Antetokounmpo to rally from a low point. Even though he had a solid first three quarters, doubts over whether he can ever be a closer crept up again. The same struggles that caused his team to be embarrassingly taken out by Miami in the bubble by a 4-1 count in last season’s Eastern Conference semifinals remain a factor. Can he be trusted at the line? Why didn’t he step up and take on the challenge of stopping Durant even once in the fourth quarter on the same day he was named to the NBA All-Defensive First Team.
This has been a puzzling series to handicap but it seems destined to go the distance. Milwaukee gets to go back home, lick its wounds and take on an opponent that is ahead despite running on fumes. Logic would dictate that the Bucks will be more the desperate team in an elimination game and that they’re clearly most comfortable at home.
Logic also went out the window in the second half of Game 5, when Durant took over as the best scorer on the planet once again and the Bucks collectively crumbled in coming up short.