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The Backup Backup Nets Shocked the World

Even with its eight best players sidelined, and its ninth-best player joining them after five minutes of playing time, Brooklyn pulled off the bubble upset over the NBA-leading Bucks (who may or may not have pulled Giannis at half)

AP Images/Ringer illustration

I’ll always remember where I was when the Backup Backup Nets beat the best team in the NBA. You always do with the great upsets. With the Super Bowls and NBA Finals, you know there’s an important sports thing about to happen, so you go to your sports happy place—your den, your buddy’s house, the local bar. But with the upsets, you’re always caught off guard. You were out and about living your life when you squinted through a sports bar window and saw a TV with a score you couldn’t believe, and that moment is cemented in your mind forever. So it is with Nets 119, Bucks 116—the biggest upset in an NBA game in at least 27 years, according to Las Vegas odds. I’ll never forget where I was when I saw it.

The Nets were invited to the NBA bubble because technically they’re a playoff team. But there’s no way the team that has been playing in Orlando would qualify for the playoffs. The Nets’ best player, Kevin Durant, has been out all season with the Achilles injury he suffered in last year’s NBA Finals. The Nets’ second-best player, Kyrie Irving, underwent season-ending shoulder surgery in March. The Nets’ third-best player, Spencer Dinwiddie, tested positive for COVID-19 and skipped the NBA restart. Former All-Star DeAndre Jordan and starter Taurean Prince also tested positive for COVID. Backup forward Wilson Chandler opted out of the restart, and backup big Nic Claxton also had shoulder surgery. The Nets signed Michael Beasley to help out with their depth problems ahead of the restart, but Beasley also tested positive for COVID-19. But the Nets still had three fine players: Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, and Jarrett Allen.

LeVert, Harris, and Allen combined for 83 of the team’s 118 points in Sunday’s win over the Wizards, putting the Nets up eight games on Washington and essentially guaranteeing a playoff spot. So on Tuesday against the 54-13 Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn sat LeVert, Harris, and Allen—LeVert with a thigh injury, Harris with a back injury, and Allen with … load management. The Nets had basically nothing to play for.

This was sure to be a bloodbath. One team had the reigning MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo, possibly the best player in the world. The Nets did not have any of the best eight players on the Nets. Antetokounmpo had scored 1,762 total points this season. The Nets’ active roster had scored 1,291 points this season. They were without 82.4 percent of their total points on the season. One team was arguably the in the NBA; the other was barely an NBA team. Las Vegas set the spread at 18.5 points. FiveThirtyEight said that was too conservative, listing the Nets as 21.5-point underdogs—but their system still thought LeVert, Harris, and Allen were playing. My colleague Zach Kram’s system had the Nets as 20-point underdogs.

However, Brooklyn had an ace in the hole. Ahead of the restart, they signed Jamal Crawford—professional scorer, your favorite player’s favorite player. Crawford scored 51 points in the final game of the 2018-19 season, making him the first player ever to score 50 points in a game for four teams. But nobody signed Crawford, now 40, for the 2019-20 season—until the Nets needed him. Crawford was a bit out of shape, and missed Brooklyn’s first two games, but he debuted against the Bucks and showed that he hadn’t lost a step. He got on the floor and started cooking the best defense in the league—drilling a 3, whittling Bucks defenders with his trademark crossovers and sliding nifty dishes to open teammates. The Nets went on a 10-0 run after Crawford checked in:

Aaaaaaaand then Crawford’s creaky body remembered that it was born back when Jimmy Carter was president. Crawford pulled a hammy just five minutes in. The Nets were now without their nine best players.

But Brooklyn had fight in them—literally. In the first quarter, Antetokounmpo got into a scrap with Donta Hall. Hall committed a hard foul, and Antetokounmpo yelled “I’M GONNA FUCK YOU UP” at Hall.

Normally, the MVP doesn’t need to threaten to fuck up a guy with 14 career points. Normally the MVP just goes ahead and fucks them up. It’s the sort of thing you don’t need to announce. So when the MVP is screaming “I’M GONNA FUCK YOU UP” to a guy with 14 career points, the guy with 14 career points is winning.

And sure enough, the Nets won. They attempted 57 3s and hit 21 of them. They turned the ball over only seven times, tied for the fewest by any Bucks opponent all season. And just about every player on their active roster who didn’t pull their hamstring played one of the best games of their pro careers. Four players had career highs for the Nets: Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot’s 26 points, Jeremiah Martin’s nine points, Hall’s nine rebounds, and Chris Chiozza’s 10 assists.

TLC’s shot is normally unpretty—he shot 32.3 percent from 3 with the Sixers, the team that drafted him in the first round in 2016 and immediately regretted it—but it was waterfalls Tuesday, when he went 5-for-7 from deep. I see your “No Scrubs” joke and appreciate it, but think you should’ve tried harder.

We probably should mention something. Giannis Antetokounmpo did not play in the second half of this game. Why would he have? The Bucks need just one more win to secure the top seed in the Eastern Conference, and have five games to get it. Why would he risk injury in a meaningless game against the lowly Nets? Khris Middleton also sat for the second half, and the Bucks’ other starters played limited minutes. The Bucks closed with a lineup of role players like Sterling Brown, Pat Connaughton, Marvin Williams, Donte DiVincenzo, and Ersan Ilyasova. But the Nets scored 73 points in the first half, when Giannis was playing—and at least all of the Bucks’ reserves were NBA players. The Nets were playing five guys who were not on NBA rosters in June and two players on two-way contracts with the Nets and their G League affiliate.

One of those two-way players who spent most of the year in the G League is Chiozza, who was cut by the Wizards in December. Chiozza’s a March Madness guy—he hit the longest floater in the history of floaters to power Florida into the Elite Eight three years ago—but he played at Florida. The Gators were favored in that game. Tuesday’s game was a March Madness–style upset, played in the afternoon in an empty stadium between one sleepy massive favorite and a bunch of guys you’ve never heard of.

Unfortunately, there’s a big difference between a March Madness upset and what happened Tuesday. The Nets are still the 8-seed, and the Bucks are still the 1-seed. If all things hold, these teams will probably play in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Antetokounmpo probably will follow through on his promise to fuck up Donta Hall next time.

I’ll always remember where I was when I saw the Backup Backup Nets beat the best team in the NBA—unfortunately, I’ve been here since March, and I’ll still be here next week when the Bucks kick the hell out of the Nets in the first round.