Nets make huge statement with gutsy win over Bucks

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Everybody from experts to oddsmakers pegged Monday night’s matchup as a preview of the Eastern Conference final. If it is, the Nets have to feel pretty good about the statement they just made.

The Nets still clearly aren’t operating at full strength, but still gutted out a 125-123 win over Milwaukee and Giannis Antetokounmpo that had a playoff vibe. In a heavyweight bout between the two teams expected to vie for a berth in the NBA Finals, the Nets took the first round with one hand tied behind their backs.

Kyrie Irving missed a seventh straight game, not expected back until at least Wednesday in Cleveland. But even without the All-Star point guard, the Nets (9-6) had just enough to eke out their fourth straight behind Kevin Durant, newly acquired star James Harden and some encouraging defense.

Durant shook off a slow start to finish with 30 points, nine rebounds and six assists — including the 3-pointer with 36 seconds to play for the final margin. Harden, who is still rounding into shape and hasn’t had a full practice with his new team, had a game-high 34 points, 12 assists and six boards — including the final one to ice it.

“You know them so well and you know they have a history playing together in OKC,” Steve Nash said. “But it’s great to see. Obviously that’s the idea behind the deal. You give up a lot to get a lot; you get a generational talent like James who makes others better. So having him out there, not even in his best shape, and able to affect the game the way he did is incredibly impressive.

“[Harden] can play his way back into shape and mitigate the risk of injury with that load when he is still ramping himself up. In a sense, it’s a unique situation because he’s so gifted that he can play at a high level even when he’s not in total shape.”

And the rest of the team held up its end.

The entire rest of the starting five had cracked double-figures by the end of the third quarter, Joe Harris (20 points, 5 of 7 from 3) benefitting from the star’s gravity, Jeff Green (14 points) starting strong and even DeAndre Jordan (12 points, 12 boards) posting his first double-double of the season.

Antetokounmpo matched Harden’s game-high with 34 points, but Brooklyn’s maligned defense held Milwaukee to 43.8 percent shooting, including 29.7 percent from behind the arc.

The Nets trailed by as much as six points in a first half that saw Harden commit six turnovers and Durant shoot just 4 of 12, getting open midrange look after midrange look only to see them rim out. But the Nets — without Irving — still managed to lead Milwaukee 57-56 at the break.

The Nets trailed 62-61 with 10:58 left in the third period after a 3-pointer by Brook Lopez, still Brooklyn’s all-time leading scorer, but they forced three straight misses and got going the other way, mounting an 11-2 spurt. By the time Harden found Green for another 3-pointer, they’d gone ahead 72-64.

Brooklyn led by as much as 87-76 on Durant free throws with 4:39 to go in the third. The Nets did let Milwaukee climb back ahead 98-97 on a Pat Connaughton 3.

Clinging to a 101-100 lead that was tenuous at best, Durant and Harden padded the gap. Harden hit an 8-foot floater, and Durant a 6-foot pull-up. Then, after Durant snatched a rebound off of a Donte DiVincenzo miss, he found Harden for a running layup and a 107-100 edge with 7:54 to play.

The Nets saw Milwaukee pull even again, Lopez’s 3 knotting it at 110-all; and a Connaughton 3 put the Bucks ahead 113-112.

The Nets trailed 117-114 before buckets by Jordan and Harden gave them back the lead. Khris Middleton put Milwaukee back ahead, but Durant knotted it at 119-all with 1:32 to play.

The Greek Freak’s follow dunk untied it, but Harris’ 3 put Brooklyn back ahead. The rest was a back-and-forth affair, until Durant’s 3 with 36 seconds left put the Nets up 125-123. And Harden rebounded a Kris Middleton miss to seal it.

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