Khris Middleton helps Milwaukee force a Game 7

We have another Game 7 on our hands. The Milwaukee Bucks led wire-to-wire to defeat the Brooklyn Nets 104-89 to keep their championship hopes alive.

Kevin Durant put up big numbers again as he finished the loss with 32 points and 11 rebounds to lead the way for the Nets. His standout effort wasn’t enough though as Milwaukee’s big three of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday combined for 89 points, 35 rebounds and 13 assists to avoid being eliminated on their home floor.

With the win, the Bucks and Nets will now face off in a winner take all Game 7 matchup at Barclays Center on Saturday. The time of that showdown has yet to be determined. For now, here are the three most important takeaways from Game 6.

1. Giannis, the center

Remember when Giannis Antetokounmpo attempted eight 3-pointers in Game 3? Yea, he doesn’t either. For the first time all postseason, the two-time MVP did not attempt a 3-pointer. In fact, only five of his 20 shot attempts came outside of the paint. In the early portion of this series, the Nets somehow tricked Giannis into playing like a guard. That’s not who he is. He’s a center, and the Bucks are at their best when he plays like one.

Aside from a game in which Antetokounmpo got injured 46 seconds in, he had only played two other games this season without attempting a 3. The Game 6 win pushed Milwaukee to 3-0 when he doesn’t, with a point-differential of plus-63. They went undefeated when he didn’t try a 3 last season as well. In fact, excluding games in which he got injured, the Bucks have now won their last 10 games in which he did not try a 3-pointer. The last time they lost under those circumstances? April 24, 2018. The Bucks need Giannis in attack mode, and he was on Thursday.

That being said, they greased the wheels a bit with their lineup choices as well. In the first five games of the series, the Bucks played the five-man unit of Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday, Khris Middleton, P.J. Tucker and Pat Connaughton for only 14 total minutes. They played nearly 12 in Game 6 alone, essentially making Giannis the center on both ends of the floor with perimeter players surrounding him. Brook Lopez shoots well for a center, but that extra dose of ball-handling and speed helped the Bucks not only play lethal transition offense, but made them slightly less predictable half-court offense as well. They weren’t great there by any stretch, but they did enough to win the game. Against a smaller team like Brooklyn, that adjustment might make all of the difference in this series.

2. Die by the 3

Even despite playing smaller, the Bucks still haven’t found their groove from deep yet in this series. They entered Game 6 shooting 29.3 percent on 3-pointers and things didn’t get any better on Thursday. Bucks not named Khris Middleton shot 2-of-25 from behind the arc, with Jrue Holiday, in particular, struggling on his way to a 1-of-10 night.

The Nets deserve some credit for this. Their defense is designed specifically to prevent teams from shooting 3s by switching most ball screens. But Milwaukee made almost 39 percent of its regular-season 3-pointers, and the entered Game 6 shooting only 24 percent on wide-open 3s against the Nets. A lot of that is just bad luck. It’s not as though Brooklyn is defending those wide-open 3-pointers.

Missing Donte DiVincenzo hurts a lot on this front. Not only did he hit almost 38 percent of his 3-pointers this season, but he can put the ball on the floor and strain defenses as a driver, opening up looks for teammates. Right now, the only players the Bucks seem to trust dribbling are Antetokounmpo, Holiday and Middleton.

In theory, the Bucks could snap out of this in Game 7 and blow the Nets out. They hit over 40 percent of their attempts in Game 5 but lost on a historic Kevin Durant performance. But Game 7s aren’t exactly known to be forgiving for shooters. They tend to be rock fights, and if that’s the case on Saturday, the Bucks are going to have to rely even more heavily on their interior scoring to escape this series.

3. Harden improving?

On paper, James Harden was better in Game 6 than he was in Game 5. He scored 16 points compared to five in Game 5, and the Nets actually won the minutes Durant sat out in the second quarter specifically because of Harden’s crafty pick-and-roll game. But let’s be honest about where he is physically. This is not the Harden that won an MVP a few years ago. Just look at what happened on this steal.

Harden had nothing but a runway ahead of him. If he were healthy, he would have raced for the layup. But he stops because he knows right now that he doesn’t have it in him physically to beat Milwaukee’s defenders to the rim.

That was the story of his Game 6. Harden didn’t attempt a single layup. Even when he got penetration, he pulled up for a floater because he just didn’t have the lift he’d need to score at the rim. He can still be an effective player under those circumstances. This is James Harden we’re talking about. If nothing else, he can still shoot and make stationary passes. But the Nets don’t have three stars right now. Not even close.

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