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The Biggest Showdown of the NBA Playoffs Is Set

With Kevin Durant returning to mere mortal status, the Bucks forced a winner-take-all Game 7, a titanic superteam clash that could alter this year’s title picture—and potentially much more

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The glass-half-full take for the Bucks was pretty clear after Game 5. Yes, Kevin Durant had just turned in one of the greatest individual performances in NBA playoff history to propel the Nets to a 3-2 lead in their second-round series. And yes, Milwaukee had completely imploded in the second half, clanging jumpers, frittering away possessions, and watching a 17-point lead disappear, replaced by dismal dread—the feeling that, for the third straight postseason, all might be lost.

There was still Game 6, though, back at the Fiserv Forum. And what would happen if, say, Durant didn’t have the greatest game of his career again? And if Jeff Green and Blake Griffin maybe didn’t combine for 44 points and 10 3-pointers again? And if the Bucks could step on, like, only some rakes, rather than every single one?

The answer, as it turns out: “Bucks win.”

Two days after Durant played the game of his life to push Milwaukee to the brink of elimination, Khris Middleton played the game of his to fuel a 104-89 win and make sure the Bucks had some company on the razor’s edge. The two-time All-Star was brilliant on Thursday, scoring a career-postseason-high 38 points on sparkling shooting—11-for-16 from the field, 5-for-8 from 3-point range, 11-for-12 from the foul line—to go with 10 rebounds, five assists, and five steals in 42 minutes. That stat line puts Middleton in some awfully heady company: He’s just the eighth player since 1984 to go for 30-10-5-5 in a playoff game, joining Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Scottie Pippen, Gary Payton, Kawhi Leonard, and Jimmy Butler.

Middleton was massive when it mattered most. When James Harden’s balky hamstring finally started to warm up, to the tune of 11 points and three assists in the second quarter alone—particularly vital production, since it gave Durant the chance to sit for the first time in nearly six quarters—Middleton answered with 17 second-quarter points of his own, including two 3s in a 25-second span, to help send Milwaukee into halftime with a double-digit lead.

When Brooklyn chopped the deficit down to five with just under 90 seconds left in the third quarter, Middleton scored three quick consecutive baskets—a pair of short jumpers, plus a buzzer-beating putback of a missed layup by Giannis Antetokounmpo—to rebuild the lead and keep the Nets at arm’s length. And when the Nets got back within five early in the fourth, he slammed the door, spearheading an 18-2 run that he capped by drawing a foul on Harden while drilling a 3, which must be a very satisfying feeling:

That effectively ended things. After Middleton’s four-point play gave the Bucks a 21-point lead, Mike Budenholzer and Nets coach Steve Nash pulled their starters, giving them a head start on resting up for Game 7 back in Brooklyn on Saturday night. It will be the biggest and most consequential game of the 2021 postseason thus far—a berth in the Eastern Conference finals on the line, and the chance to either square off against a wobbly Sixers team whose best player is playing through a torn meniscus and whose second-best player is in the midst of one of the worst free throw shooting slumps in playoff history, or to have home-court advantage against a Hawks team that continues to punch above its weight class.

By the time you reach the end of a seven-game playoff series, there really aren’t many secrets left. Both teams know one another’s go-to sets, favorite actions, and subtlest tendencies like the backs of their hands. The major tactical and schematic adjustments—like Middleton and Jrue Holiday repeatedly targeting Griffin in the pick-and-roll, or Nash inserting Green into the starting lineup to either draw Brook Lopez out of the paint or make him pay for sitting in drop coverage—already have been made. What mystery remains lies largely in whether the familiar principals can execute and perform under even higher pressure, whether rotations that have already been cut to the bone get even tighter, and whether Budenholzer or Nash can figure out a way to throw something new at one another in the winner-take-all finale.

The most compelling development for Milwaukee in Game 6 (besides Middleton outdueling KD, that is) was what didn’t happen: namely, Giannis not shooting a bunch of ill-advised pull-up jumpers. Of the 20 shots that the two-time MVP attempted on Thursday, 15 came in the paint, five came from midrange, and zero came from beyond the 3-point arc—just the fourth time this season he didn’t hoist at least one long-range try, and the first time he’s done it in a playoff game in more than three years. The result: 30 points on 20 shots, 17 rebounds, three assists, a steady stream of relentless downhill drives in transition (which fueled Milwaukee’s 26-4 edge in fast-break points) and revved-up rampages with a head of steam in the half court.

Can he keep that up in Game 7, staying disciplined with his approach—knowing when to bull-rush, when to drive and kick, and when to just get off the ball so that Middleton or Holiday can initiate? Or will the temptation to go toe-to-toe with the best player in the world lead to a regression at the worst possible time?

The same goes for Holiday, who scored a playoff-high 21 points to go with eight rebounds, five assists, and four steals in Game 6, but who did it on 8-for-21 shooting: 7-for-11 inside the arc, and 1-for-10 outside it. The version of Jrue that attacks off the dribble, using his strength and quickness to go at Harden and Griffin and burrow into the lane for layups and short jumpers, can help the Bucks win Game 7; the version who repeatedly settles for low-percentage stepbacks, though, could help them lose it.

With Durant seemingly all but certain to hang an efficient 30-plus, the big question—as it’s been ever since Kyrie Irving went down—is whether the Nets can find enough supplementary offense to get across the finish line. Brooklyn scored 92.3 points per 100 possessions in the second half of Game 4 after Irving’s injury; 87.8 points-per-100 in the first half of Game 5 before KD ascended to a higher plane of existence; and 95.7 points-per-100 in Game 6, with the Bucks’ defense smothering passing lanes (12 steals, 14 deflections) and essentially daring anyone but Durant to beat them.

Harden clearly still isn’t himself. He did his best to quarterback the Nets again in Game 6, getting off the ball early and just trying to fit high-low feeds through tight windows rather than providing the sort of north-south dominance we’re accustomed to seeing from him. He did look a bit more spry and potent, scoring 16 points on 5-for-9 shooting with seven assists in 40 minutes and showing signs of increased willingness and ability to push off of his ailing hamstring:

With another game under his belt to recover his rhythm after an extended layoff, and a bit more of an understanding of what his wounded wheel can and can’t do, might Harden be able to provide a little more in Game 7 than he did in Game 6? It’s a big ask, given the nature of the injury and the huge minutes load he’s immediately assumed. But if newly elevated starter Green and lone trusted reserve Landry Shamet can bounce back after a quiet Game 6, just a bit more from Harden—say, from 16-and-7 to 20-and-10—might offer enough support for KD to be able to take care of the rest.

If Durant and a more mobile Harden can get Brooklyn’s offense on track early in Game 7, giving Milwaukee fits with the Griffin-and-Green five-out alignment, will Budenholzer yank Lopez, his rim-protection security blanket, and go small? Lopez spent the fourth quarter of Game 6 on the bench, watching as Giannis, Middleton, Holiday, P.J. Tucker, and Pat Connaughton sealed the game. But with the Bucks’ rotation already so tightly squeezed—Connaughton and Bryn Forbes were the only reserves to get more than a cursory look before garbage time—will Bud be reluctant to jettison one of the few players he really trusts in a game that could wind up determining whether or not he’s still got a job next season?

There are more questions: After failing to do it at all in Game 5 and only doing it a little in Game 6, will the Bucks make a more concerted effort to attack Harden on defense in Game 7? Can Joe Harris (nine points on nine shots in Game 6, which, regrettably, constitutes his best game in this series) finally get off the schneid? For that matter, will the Bucks, who have significantly underperformed their expected effective field goal percentage in this series, do the same? (Though Milwaukee hasn’t done itself any favors with some head-scratching decisions about how to attack this Brooklyn defense.)

If the Nets are in a bind and need to short-circuit Milwaukee’s offense, might Nash take a page out of Nate McMillan’s book in the East’s other second-round series and try intentionally fouling Giannis (just 45.7 percent from the stripe in this series, but 6-for-10 on Thursday)? And, perhaps most importantly: Can Milwaukee’s Big Three, which scored as many points as the entire Nets team did in Game 6, press its collective talent advantage on the road in an elimination game? Or will Brooklyn’s ace trump three of a kind? The answers could determine who advances to the conference finals—and, with championship windows closing rapidly and seats forever getting hotter—perhaps a lot more, too.