How the heck should I know?
That was, in essence, what Bucks forward Khris Middleton said when asked how the Nets will be weakened or different without James Harden.
“I can’t really answer that question because we haven’t played with all three of those guys on the court at the same time,’’ Middleton said Sunday after practice. “You can watch it on film, you can watch it during the game, but you don’t really have a real feel for it unless you go out against them and we haven’t yet.’’
The Bucks faced the Nets three times in the regular season (with the Bucks winning two of three) and at no point was the Nets’ Big 3 of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Harden on the court at the same time. Saturday night, Harden lasted 43 seconds of the second-round series opener at Barclays Center before he exited with tightness in the right hamstring he damaged during the season. The Nets overcame the shock of seeing Harden walk off and the Bucks did not react well at all, losing 115-107.
“I thought overall our defense wasn’t as good as it needs to be,’’ Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “We can be better on Durant, we can be better on Irving, but we got to be just as conscious and much better, whether it be [Blake] Griffin and [Joe] Harris, some of their other guys played well. We just got to be significantly better defensively.’’
The Bucks arranged their entire defensive thrust to deal with the Big 3. Budenholzer admitted he spent plenty of time during Sunday’s practice session altering that approach leading into Game 2 Monday night, with Harden already declared out.
“Durant and Irving are probably just maybe more aggressive, more, I don’t want to say ball-dominant because I thought they moved the ball well and played with each other well,’’ Budenholzer said. “I think those two guys can just take on a more commanding role if and when Harden doesn’t play. They’ve played a significant number of games without him. I think they have that confidence and comfort just to be more ball dominant.’’
It is going to be exceedingly difficult for the Bucks to even the series unless they get more from their marquee players other than Giannis Antetokounmpo (34 points). If Middleton plays the way he did in the opener, the Bucks are sunk. In 36 minutes, he scored just 13 points on brutal 6-for-23 shooting. Middleton missed all five of his 3-point attempts, a serious downer for a career 39.5 percent shooter from beyond the arc. The Bucks shot 6 of 30 from long distance.
“I’d say for the most part they contested the majority of the shots,’’ Middleton said. “I feel like we still missed a lot of makeable shots we normally make. They did a great job contesting every shot, making sure nobody was left wide open or nobody had an easy look at the rim.’’
In addition to drastically improving their offensive efficiency, the Bucks have to find a way to slow a Nets attack that did not have any problem getting to the rim. No Harden did not mean a thing, at least for one game.
“Obviously James, KD, Kyrie, those are the guys that people have talked about all season with the Nets and how they play when all three of them were there,’’ Bucks guard Pat Connaughton said. “I do think they’re a great team with and they’re a great team without one of them. The ball moves a lot when there are two of them on the floor, one of them on the floor.’’