James Harden left Game 1 of the Nets-Bucks series in the first minute, after aggravating the hamstring injury that cost him 21 games during the regular season. Steve Nash doesn’t know whether Harden will be available for Game 2 — either way, the former MVP’s health coming into question reshapes everything about the Eastern Conference semifinal.
The Nets set right about molding it to their liking.
Behind 29 points from Kevin Durant, 25 from Kyrie Irving, and an 18-and-14 night by the rejuvenated Blake Griffin, the Nets banged out a 115-107 victory, making the narrative going into Game 2, “whoa, the Nets are loaded,” rather than, “yikes, the Nets are in a heap of trouble, down 0-1 without one of their big three.”
Depth is quite clearly going to be an issue for Brooklyn if Harden has to miss any time, but if there’s a team that you can afford to be a bit thin against, it’s Milwaukee, as the Bucks tend to be very careful (to a fault) about overloading Giannis Antetokounmpo and on average, even during the playoffs, rest him for 12 minutes a game. There’s room to buy minutes with the second unit.
But really, it’s about the fact that the Nets have Durant and Irving, plus Griffin and one of the best three-point shooters on the planet in Joe Harris. Yes, it looks really good on a night when Harris goes 5-for-9 from downtown and Griffin has the game he did, and Khris Middleton goes 6-for-23 shooting. But also, part of the problem with the Bucks is that Middleton is their other big-money guy to go with Antetokounmpo, and for someone in that role, there are too many stinkers in big games on his resume — three of them against the Heat last year in the series where the Bucks were eliminated, five of the six games in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals against the Raptors, and now this, a game where the Bucks had a chance to grab home-court advantage and send the Nets into crisis with Harden hurt.
The Nets don’t have control of this series thanks to just one win, and if they’ve lost Harden for much of it, they’ll face more of a challenge. But what Brooklyn showed in Game 1 is that they still have plenty of strengths without Harden, and the Bucks’ weaknesses remain exactly what they’ve been.