Three things to watch: Milwaukee Bucks vs. Brooklyn Nets

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The winner of this series is going to win the NBA title.

Probably. Maybe. Nothing is certain in life or this upside-down NBA season, but the path opens up for the winner of this Nets vs. Bucks second-round showdown. In the East, Joel Embiid‘s damaged knee ligament makes the 76ers much more vulnerable, and out West LeBron James and the Lakers are gone, Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers don’t understand the word consistency (or have an answer for Luka Doncic), and either of these two East teams can beat Utah or anyone else in the conference.

Milwaukee Bucks vs. Brooklyn Nets for all the marbles.

Here are three things to watch in this critical second-round series.

1) Does Brooklyn have anyone who can slow Giannis Antetokounmpo?

Brooklyn is not a very good defensive team. Not that it matters. They didn’t need to be a great defense in the regular season (best offense in the NBA) or in the first round against Boston, which had Jayson Tatum and not enough else. The Nets 117.6 defensive rating in the first round was slightly worse than the playoff league average but would have been tied for worst in the league over 72 games. Still, the Nets had the second-best net rating in the first round thanks to that insane offense (132.6 net rating, all stats via Cleaning the Glass).

The Bucks bring two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to the party, plus an All-NBA level player in Khris Middleton, an All-Star level two-way point guard in Jrue Holiday, and shooters everywhere you look.

Slowing Antetokounmpo is going to be a problem for Brooklyn and could swing the series. Who does Brooklyn have to match up? Kevin Durant is the team’s best defender and has the length and athleticism, but Antetokounmpo would both overpower KD and get him in foul trouble. Bad idea. Nicholas Claxton would get overwhelmed physically. Blake Griffin will get blown by like he’s a traffic cone. In the regular season the Nets went a lot with DeAndre Jordan, having him drop way back and daring Antetokounmpo to become a jump shooter, but he will not take that bait for long and will attack into space given him for short floaters at worst. Jeff Green is an option once and if he gets healthy. James Harden likely will get turns, he is strong enough and has great hands defensively, but the risk is him getting into foul trouble.

There are no good answers for Brooklyn, and if Antetokounmpo has a monster series — which is very possible — it becomes that much tougher to beat the Bucks. My guess is we see a lot of Harden on Antetokounmpo and Durant on Middleton, but with all the switching and mismatches in this series, everything will be about help and depth.

2) Can Milwaukee slow down the Nets offense even a little bit?

Milwaukee exorcized a lot of demons in its first-round sweep of Miami, and they did with a defense that gave up less than a point per possession in the meaningful minutes of games (not counting garbage time). The Bucks didn’t emphasize it this regular season as they did past ones, but this is an elite defense.

However, can it match up with the Nets offense that might be as great a collection of talent as the game has seen? The Bucks may have the best chance to slow this offense of any team in the league, but even that may not be enough.

Jrue Holiday will likely draw the Kyrie Irving assignment much of the series (although he will see Harden time as well). Irving’s handles will get him quality looks against any defender, but Holiday is quick and strong enough to make life difficult for him (as much as anyone can). Antetokounmpo and Middleton will both get time on the Durant assignment, and try to use their length and athleticism to slow one of the greatest scorers the game has ever seen. P.J. Tucker will get valuable minutes in this role as well.

The real challenge is Harden, and this is where the Bucks will miss Donte DiVincenzo; he would have been by far their best option in this spot. Antetokounmpo and Middleton may get time here, as will Pat Connaughton, a solid defender against players who just try to overpower him with strength. Tucker could get some turns here. Connaughton also will get time on Joe Harris.

The Bucks will pressure the Nets perimeter players and bet on Brook Lopez, being dropped back into the paint, can make it tough to just drive to the rim for dunks and lay-ups. Can Blake Griffin hit enough threes to drag Lopez out of the paint? This is where the Nets will miss Green until (or if) he returns this series.

The Bucks defenders were on a string against the Heat, and this is a long and talented team on that end of the floor. But is it enough.

3) James Harden is the key to this series

Harden was the key to the Nets season, and his performance is my biggest X-factor in this series.

At points against the Celtics in the first round, these Nets looked reminded me of the 2011 Heat, the first year of their big three: You take a turn, then I take a turn, then he takes a turn, and we all play next to each other and not truly “with” one another. It’s worth noting that Heat team lost in the Finals but came back the next season and, under Erik Spoelstra, learned how to play off one another, and they picked up the next two titles.

Harden is the guy who gets Brooklyn playing with one another, the guy who gets the ball moving side-to-side, gets the players moving off the ball, and turns the Nets offense into something more. You could see it in Game 2 against Miami when Brooklyn had 31 assists (67% of their made baskets) and six players in double figures in scoring.

That is the Nets team that wins this series. As talented as Brooklyn is, if they line up and go mano-y-mano against Milwaukee, it plays into the Bucks’ hands — Irving may drive around Holiday and get in the paint but then has to hit a contested floater over Lopez. Keep the ball moving and maybe Jordan/Claxton gets an alley-oop out of the dunker’s spot, or a kick-out and quick pass leads to Joe Harris getting time to set his feet and line up a three. When the Nets move the ball and get out in transition, nobody can slow their offense.

If Harden has a big series, the Nets get the win. But, if the Nets fall too much into isolation basketball — as great as they are at it with elite isolation scorers — they can be beaten.

PREDICTION: Nets in 7 games… but I don’t feel comfortable about it. This series is a coin flip.