Bucks start title defense by handling Nets 127-104 on ring night

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MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks didn’t let the celebration of the franchise’s first NBA championship in half a century distract them as they opened their title defense.

In his first game since scoring 50 points in a title-clinching Game 6 NBA Finals victory over the Phoenix Suns, Antetokounmpo had 32 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists to lead the Bucks to a 127-104 victory over the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday night.

“We’re part of history,” Antetokounmpo said. “I’m excited. But now it’s over with. We’ve got to focus on building good habits, keep moving forward and keep playing good basketball and hopefully we can repeat this again this year, next year and all the years that we’re going to be here down the road.”

Khris Middleton and Pat Connaughton each added 20 points to help the Bucks withstand the loss of Jrue Holiday, who sat out the second half with a bruised right heel after scoring 12 points. Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said MRI results on Holiday were encouraging.

Kevin Durant led the Nets with 32 points and 11 rebounds. Patty Mills scored 21 points and shot 7 of 7 from 3-point range. James Harden added 20 points.

“We weren’t very good,” Brooklyn coach Steve Nash said. “If you’re not playing at a high level against the champs, you’re not going to win.”

The Nets were missing star guard Kyrie Irving, who isn’t with the team due to his refusal to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

A New York mandate requires professional athletes on local teams to be vaccinated to practice or play in public venues. Rather than using Irving exclusively in road games, the Nets decided he wouldn’t play or practice with them at all until he could be a full participant.

After receiving their rings, raising a banner and watching a highlight video of their first NBA championship since 1971, the Bucks defeated the team that nearly eliminated them in the second round of the playoffs. Antetokounmpo acknowledged that he teared up a little bit during the pregame ceremony.

“When they were playing those videos, you cannot help yourself but get emotional,” Antetokounmpo said. “Looking back to the journey, where we started from and where we are right now.”

Milwaukee rallied from a 2-0 deficit and won Game 7 at Brooklyn in overtime after Durant’s foot barely crept across the 3-point arc in the final seconds of regulation, turning a potential series-winning 3-pointer into a game-tying 2-point basket.

The Bucks went on a 21-4 run in the first quarter to extend a 10-8 advantage to 31-12. They got the lead back up to 19 again in the second quarter and were ahead 66-59 at halftime. The lead never dropped below seven the rest of the way.

Milwaukee outrebounded Brooklyn 54-44 and took 21 more shots than the Nets.

“We were climbing uphill all game,” Durant said.

Milwaukee got 15 points from Jordan Nwora and 10 from Grayson Allen.

Mills had a brilliant Brooklyn debut after spending the last 10 seasons in San Antonio, but the Nets didn’t get much else from their bench. Brooklyn’s other reserves combined for just four points.