Irving’s early exit, Bucks’ best performance leads to 2-2 series tie with Nets

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For much of the season, the Brooklyn Nets had to get by without at least one, sometimes two, of their big three. It didn’t matter much against regular-season competition levels, the Nets earned their way to 48 wins and the second-best record in the East.

Getting by without their stars is very different in the second round of the playoffs.

Especially against a Bucks team playing its best basketball of the series.

The dynamic of a physical, back-and-forth game changed midway through the second quarter when Kyrie Irving came down from a layup attempt and his foot landed on the foot of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Irving’s right ankle turned almost 90 degrees.

Irving limped back to the locker room and did not return to the game.

The Bucks took advantage of that in the third quarter, pulling away to a lead that got up to 19 and stayed in the teens most of the second half. Late in the fourth and Antetokounmpo put an exclamation mark on the win.

The Bucks topped the Nets 107-96 in Game 4, tying up the series at 2-2. The critical Game 5 is back in Brooklyn on Tuesday.

Steve Nash said after the game he had no idea if Irving would be available for Game 5 but that the X-rays were negative. An MRI will follow in the next 24 hours, painting a better picture of a timeline for Irving’s return.

Brooklyn remains without James Harden, who strained his right hamstring in the opening minutes of this series. While the Nets organization has been tight-lipped about his status, ABC’s Mike Breen said on the broadcast Harden just started doing some on-the-court work and has a ways to go before his return.

No Irving or Harden put a heavy load on Kevin Durant, who scored 28 points but was 9-of-25 shooting in Game 4. Irving had 11 points before his exit and still was the only other Net in double figures by the end of the game.

While the injury grabs the headlines, it should not detract from the fact the Bucks played their best game of the series by a longshot.

From the opening tip, their movement on offense was much better, both in the halfcourt and in transition — Milwaukee dug deep on defense, got stops, and with that started 18.8% of their possessions in transition with a ridiculous 147 offensive rating on those plays (stats via Cleaning the Glass). The Nets actually ran more, 19.6% of their possessions started that way, but they had a dreadful 60 offensive rating on those plays.

Mike Budenholzer also finally went to more Antetokounmpo at center minutes in this game, and it sparked a 16-2 run. It is a lineup a lot of fans and analysts have been calling for, and it worked.

Khris Middleton was not his All-Star self, but he was better, with 19 points on 7-of-15 shooting. P.J. Tucker had a spectacular game, playing strong defense on Durant while shooting 5-of-8 overall, 3-of-6 from 3, on his way to 13 points.

More importantly, the overall energy defensively was better from the Bucks, and they took advantage of the situation and got a comfortable win.

After stumbling badly in the first two games of this series and looking dead in the water, the Bucks are healthy and bring a renewed belief in themselves to the Game 5 party now.

Who the Nets will bring remains up in the air, but it could change the series.