Post experts’ Nets-Bucks predictions: It’s going seven
Nets won’t have key big man available for Game 1 vs. Bucks
Look at Nets-Bucks playoff history
‘Elite’ Bucks guard could be handful for Nets
Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo has won the last two NBA MVP awards, and sure looked worthy of another in dominating the Nets this regular season.
Priority No. 1 for the Nets is keeping him from doing it again in the postseason, starting Saturday with Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals (7:30 p.m., TNT). It might even be priority No. 2, No. 3 and No. 4 as well.
“It’s cool to compete against the best on this stage at this point of the season,” Kevin Durant said. “When you’re out there with the best players in the world — MVPs and Defensive Players of the Year — it just makes it even better.”
Durant will spend time on Antetokounmpo, but how much is the huge call coach Steve Nash must make. Scouts that spoke with The Post said it’s a five-man job.
“Plain and simple is to keep him out of the paint and limit his transition points,” ex-76ers scout Michael VandeGarde told The Post. “That’s team defense and elite effort getting back.
“People talk about creating a wall defense to stop his ability to drive to the basket, and that’s team defense for the most part as well … and much easier to game plan for in the playoffs. That’s why Giannis hasn’t been the same player in the last three playoffs versus the regular season.”
In the past two seasons, as well as in 2021, Antetokounmpo’s player efficiency rating has dropped from the regular season to the postseason. Antetokounmpo averaged 39.7 points, 10.7 rebounds and 5.0 assists against the Nets in the regular season, and the Bucks won the season series 2-1. The Nets are bound and determined not to lose this series the same way.
“Just playing hard,” Durant said of the key to defending Antetokounmpo. “Guarding your yard, guarding who’s in front of you, keeping [in front of him]. It’s easier said than done, but that’s the foundation of it is playing hard. He’s going to play hard and we just got to match it.”
Added Blake Griffin: “With any great player, it’s something you do by committee. It’s not going to be a single person just stopping him. There’s a reason he’s back-to-back MVPs and has had the success he’s had. So yeah, we have some things in place. But it’s gonna be a team effort. And we’ll be ready for it.”
Griffin is the most likely to start at center and get first crack at Antetokounmpo. Nic Claxton is the first healthy big off the bench, with Jeff Green still hurt and DeAndre Jordan out of the rotation.
Durant could have trouble with Antetokounmpo’s strength if he’s left on him too long, but his 7-foot-4 wingspan will be vital.
“When me and KD are both on the court at the same time, our length and the way we can affect the game in that way,” Claxton said.
“KD can guard him and be somewhat successful if he wants to be,” said VandeGarde, who runs his own scouting service. “Not many players have KD’s length and quickness. … That is exactly what you’d look for in someone guarding him.
“Claxton is emerging but just doesn’t have the experience to guard Giannis at this level yet. … Jeff Green would be a huge help, but I’m not sure he plays. The physical play of Giannis would pose the biggest problem for KD. The Nets haven’t seemed too interested in guarding all year, they really just try to outscore people.”
Jordan started all three regular-season games against Antetokounmpo, facing him on 72.4 partial possessions, according to NBA data. The Greek Freak poured in 50 points while being guarded by Jordan in the three games, and the Bucks scored 94. Jordan has played just five minutes since the last game against the Bucks on May 4.
Antetokounmpo hit 5-of-12 from 3-point range with the immobile Jordan sitting in drop coverage. Instead of just being the pick-and-roll ball-handler, Antetokounmpo also dominated rolling as the screen man, making him tougher to deal with.
Griffin acquitted himself fairly well, holding Antetokounmpo to 22 points on 8-of-22 shooting, 3-of-9 from deep and four turnovers in 29.4 partial possessions.
“He shoots at a record high within 3 feet, so obviously that’s not ideal for us, but you don’t want to just give him 3s where he’s dribbling in and just be able to tee up a shot,” Griffin said. “If he hits some tough 3s you’ve got to shake his hand. But we want to make every shot he takes tougher than an uncontested wide-open 3.”
He’s not wrong. Antekounmpo’s 78.8 shooting percentage on shots within 5 feet is the best of any player with 500 attempts in the history of the NBA Advanced Stats database.
Green will be out at least for Game 1, and Claxton played just 5:02 of the three meetings with the Bucks, spending only 25 seconds matched up against Antetokounmpo.
“Just the speed, the strength he has getting downhill, he’s working on his shot, it’ll be a good challenge for us,” Claxton said. “Just try to throw some different bodies at him and figure out some way to slow him down.”
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