The Brooklyn Nets could yet be boosted by the return of James Harden on Tuesday after he was upgraded to doubtful.

Harden had initially been ruled out of Game 5 against the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

The former Houston Rockets star has been managing a hamstring injury since the start of April.

Harden, who had been making an MVP run prior to the initial setback, returned in the closing stages of the regular season.

He then averaged 27.8 points per game in the first-round series against the Boston Celtics but bowed out 43 seconds into Game 1 at home to the Bucks.

 

The potential for Harden to feature in Game 5 lifts the Nets, who have also now lost Kyrie Irving to an ankle issue.

Having gone 2-0 up against Milwaukee without Harden, Brooklyn lost both games on the road to level the series.

Kevin Durant has led the team with 29.8 points per game in the series but was limited to nine-of-25 shooting in Game 4.

Brooklyn Nets stars Kyrie Irving and James Harden will both miss Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals against the Milwaukee Bucks due to injury.

Irving sprained his right ankle in the Nets' 107-96 loss in Game 4 on Sunday and underwent an MRI which confirmed he would not be available for Tuesday's clash, with the NBA playoff series in tied at 2-2.

Nets guard Irving joins former MVP Harden on the sidelines, with the latter still absence because of a hamstring he re-injured in Game 1.

Brooklyn head coach Steve Nash said the length of Irving's absence remains unknown.

"I have to wait and see how it progresses, I think," Nash said.

"And then the experts would have to wait and see how it progresses and give you a clearer picture on what the window would be for his return."

Nash added that Harden was "working out right now" but was unclear on his return to play timeframe.

The second-seeded Nets – eyeing their maiden championship – have battled injuries throughout the 2020-21 campaign, with Harden missing 21 games late in the regular season due to his troublesome hamstring.

"It's tough to lose great players but we've lost guys all season," Nash said. "If there's any silver linings, it's that we've continued to win games regardless of who's been available.

"We've been able to adapt on the fly which is difficult to do sometimes. That's something we have some experience with. We should have some comfort and belief."

The absence of two-thirds of the 'Big Three' puts a heavy burden on Kevin Durant, although Nash insisted it was not just about him.

"This does not fall on Kevin, this falls on the Nets," Nash said. "We've got to find a way together to play great basketball on both ends of the floor. We've proven we can do it.

"We try to stick to our principles and fundamentals, which is connectivity, competitive spirit, embracing the opportunity and playing together as a team."

The Phoenix Suns are waiting.

A series sweep over the Denver Nuggets means Monty Williams' team are through to the Western Conference Finals, where they will meet either the Utah Jazz or the Los Angeles Clippers.

In the East, meanwhile, the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks are serving up a prime example of how a seven-game series can ebb and flow throughout. At 2-2 and with injuries taking a toll, it is tough to predict who will progress.

With the Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks also locked in a battle in the East, it is time to take a look at those players who have seized the chance to shine across the past week in the NBA playoffs, as well as those struggling in the shade.

RUNNING HOT...

Chris Paul

Paul set an unusual record as the Suns completed a 4-0 sweep of the Nuggets on Sunday. In contributing 37 points, the 36-year-old became the oldest guard in NBA history to outscore his age in a playoff game.

It capped a memorable week for the 11-time All-Star, who averaged 25.5 points per game in the series. Since the playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1984, Phoenix are the only team to knock out both the previous year's conference finalists in the first two rounds, having also accounted for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Donovan Mitchell

Through three games against the Clippers, Mitchell has been an offensive juggernaut for the Jazz. He has scored a combined total of 112 points to average out for the week at 37.33 per outing.

His output has been aided by getting hot from long range, the guard landing 5.67 three-point attempts per game. Yes, that is correct: Per. Game. An ankle issue could slow him down in the remainder of the series, having already missed the end of the regular season and Utah's first game in the playoffs.

Bruce Brown

With James Harden out due to a hamstring injury, Brown has taken on a greater offensive role for the ailing Nets. In three games across the past week, the 24-year-old has taken 22 shots – he had tallied 31 in the previous six playoff outings – and made his first three-pointer in the playoffs as Brooklyn won Game 2.

His production could be set to further increase if Kyrie Irving joins Harden on the sidelines, the point guard having twisted his right ankle as his team lost Game 4 in Milwaukee on Sunday.

GOING COLD...

Joe Harris

Having been pivotal at the start of the Nets-Bucks series, Harris has cooled off since the teams travelled to Milwaukee. His opening two outings saw him manage 19 and 13 points, but since then just 11 combined in back-to-back defeats.

Harris landed only one of his 11 field goal attempts in Game 3 before fouling out, while Sunday’s Game 4 performance was only marginally better. Perhaps a return to Brooklyn for Game 5 will help him find his scoring touch again.

Bobby Portis

Just like Harris on the opposing roster, Portis is in a slump. The 29-year-old has averaged just 2.0 points per game across the past week, a major drop from his regular-season average of 11.42. He is also contributing less in terms of rebounding too, dipping down to 3.0 per outing.

Fellow big Brook Lopez is another role player to see the points dry up (6.33ppg), leaving Milwaukee to lean heavily on All-Star duo Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton as they bid to make the Eastern Conference Finals.

Marcus Morris Sr and Patrick Beverley

For the second successive series, the Clippers are having to dig themselves out of an early hole. An emphatic Game 3 victory over the Jazz halved the deficit, thanks mainly to Kawhi Leonard and Paul George managing a combined total of 65 points.

The role players will need to help out too if they are to set up a clash with the Suns. Morris Sr has averaged 7.67 points across the past week, not aided by landing just one of his 16 attempts from deep. Team-mate Beverley is also struggling from long range while managing just 10 points in total in his past three games.

The Phoenix Suns advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2009-10 after sweeping Nikola Jokic's Denver Nuggets 4-0 in the NBA playoffs.

Suns duo Devin Booker and Chris Paul flexed their muscles in a 125-118 victory over the Nuggets in Game 4 as MVP Jokic was ejected on Sunday.

Jokic (22 points and 11 rebounds), who earned his first MVP accolade on Tuesday, was assessed a flagrant two foul after his foul on Phoenix's Cameron Payne in the third quarter.

That made life difficult for the third-seeded Nuggets – already missing star Jamal Murray due to injury – as the Suns rolled into the Conference Finals for the first time in more than a decade.

Paul produced a vintage performance with a game-high 37 points, while Booker put up 34 points and 11 rebounds for the second-seeded Suns, who are the only team to knock out both the previous season's conference finalists in the opening two rounds since the NBA playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1984 per Stats Perform.

The Eastern Conference semi-final matchup between the Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets is deadlocked at 2-2 after Giannis Antetokounmpo starred.

Antetokounmpo posted a double-double to lead the Bucks past the second-seeded Nets 107-96 in Game 4.

Two-time MVP Antetokounmpo had a game-high 34 points and 12 rebounds as the Bucks topped the Nets, who lost All-Star Kyrie Irving to injury.

Irving – who had 11 points, five rebounds and two assists in 17 minutes of action – twisted his right ankle after coming down on Antetokounmpo's foot, having scored from close range in the second quarter.

The seven-time All-Star received treatment on the court before walking to the locker room. The Nets later ruled him out for the remainder of the contest as the third-ranked Bucks took advantage.

Kevin Durant led the way for the Nets with 28 points but was stifled by the Bucks' physical defensive play.

 

76ers at Hawks

The top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers visit the Atlanta Hawks for Game 4 on Monday, leading the Eastern Conference semi-final series 2-1. Utah Jazz – the top seed in the west – are also in action against the Los Angeles Clippers in their Western Conference second-round Game 4.

Kyrie Irving will undergo further tests on the ankle injury he suffered in the Brooklyn Nets' defeat to the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday – a result that leaves the NBA playoff series all tied up at 2-2.

Irving twisted his right ankle after coming down on Giannis Antetokounmpo's foot after scoring from close range in the second quarter of Game 4 in the Eastern Conference semi-finals.

The seven-time All-Star received treatment on the court before walking to the locker room. The Nets later ruled him out for the remainder of the contest, though head coach Steve Nash confirmed after the game that X-rays on the issue came back negative.

"I have no idea what is going to happen with Ky in the coming days," Nash said.

"We will cross our fingers and hope that it is better than I don't know – better than what – better than missing the next game?"

Already without James Harden, Brooklyn slipped to a 107-96 defeat on the road. They host Game 3 on Tuesday, having recorded both their wins at home at the start of the best-of-seven series.

Irving had 11 points, five rebounds and two assists in 17 minutes of action.

Kevin Durant led the way for the Nets with 28 points but was stifled by the Bucks' physical defensive play which, at times, Nash felt went a step too far.

"[Tucker's] playing extremely physical. And made it difficult. That's his role on their team," Nash said. "I thought it was borderline non-basketball physical at times. But that's the playoffs."

Harden has not featured since suffering a hamstring injury in the early stages of Game 1. It remains unclear when the former MVP will return, though there are positive signs in his recovery.

"I asked him and he says he's feeling better, doing better," Nash said. "I asked the staff, they say, 'Yeah, it's getting better'. 

"I think he's in that arena where he's got a little gap to make up. But he's getting closer, so it's been positive."

Antetokounmpo's 34-point haul helped Milwaukee make it two wins from two at home. He was helped out by 19 points from Khris Middleton, while P.J. Tucker added 13 to go along with his defensive work when tasked with slowing down Durant.

"We're very happy, but we've got to keep getting better, keep playing together and hopefully we can go into Brooklyn and take one," Antetokounmpo said.

Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer added: "At this stage, it's whatever it takes to win the game.

"It certainly helps to get more guys contributing, making shots. P.J. Tucker was phenomenal on both ends of the court."

Kyrie Irving enjoyed the battle of a "good old-fashioned playoff game" despite the Brooklyn Nets seeing a roaring comeback halted by the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Bucks escaped with an 86-83 victory in Game 3 in the Eastern Conference semi-finals, with the Nets still leading the series 2-1.

Milwaukee had surrendered a 21-point lead before Jrue Holiday put the home team ahead for good with 11.4 seconds remaining.

Kevin Durant's 30 points and 11 rebounds were not enough for the Nets, who were again without injured superstar James Harden (hamstring).

Irving, however, was not too downbeat as he was able to appreciate the contest as a spectacle.

"Shoot, man, they did what they were supposed to do: come out aggressive, backs against the wall, and we had to weather that storm," he said.

"So that definitely kind of put us on our heels for the rest of the game, just playing catch-up, playing their style of basketball, and then they made some big timely shots which carried them forward.

"But we had our chances down the stretch. It was a possession-by-possession game. Both teams battling. So that's a good old-fashioned playoff game right there."

Durant highlighted how fine margins determined the outcome of a game that could have gone either way.

He said: "They played more physical, they were there at the rim and they just played their regular way, the way they've been playing the whole season.

"I think we got great looks, we need to knock them down, but they also did a good job of contesting and being physical and blocking shots at the rim.

"But for the most part we got back into the game, had plays down the stretch and they just ended up making a couple more shots."

Donovan Mitchell produced another monster performance as the top-seeded Utah Jazz took down the Los Angeles Clippers for a commanding 2-0 lead in the Western Conference semi-finals.

After going off for 45 points in the opener, All-Star Mitchell posted 37 points to lead the Jazz to a 117-111 victory at home to the Clippers in Game 2 in the NBA playoffs on Thursday.

Mitchell was supported by fellow All-Star and newly crowned Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, who put up 13 points, 20 rebounds, three blocks and two steals in Utah.

Utah's Mitchell is averaging 28.4 points in his playoff career, only behind LeBron James (28.7), Jerry West (29.1), Kevin Durant (29.2), Allen Iverson (29.7) and Michael Jordan (33.4).

The in-form Jazz extended their winning streak to six games – the team's longest unbeaten run in the playoffs since celebrating seven consecutive victories in 1998.

Kawhi Leonard and the fourth-ranked Clippers were looking to even the series by splitting Utah's homestand, but the visitors fell short in Game 2.

Reggie Jackson had a team-best 29 points on 11-for-19 shooting as Paul George (27 points and 10 rebounds) and Leonard (21 points) contributed.

In the Eastern Conference semi-finals, the Milwaukee Bucks escaped with an 86-83 victory against the Brooklyn Nets in Game 3.

The Bucks had their backs against the wall after falling into a 2-0 hole against the second-seeded Nets, but responded on home court in Milwaukee.

Milwaukee surrendered a 21-point lead at home to the Nets before Jrue Holiday put the Bucks ahead for good with 11.4 seconds remaining.

Giannis Antetokounmpo posted 33 points and 14 rebounds, while Khris Middleton top-scored with 35 points and 15 rebounds as Kevin Durant's buzzer-beating three-point attempt for the Nets bounced off the rim.

The Bucks are the only NBA team in the last 15 years to have two players (Antetokounmpo and Middleton) score 15-plus points in a quarter with no other team-mates posting a point (regular season or postseason), according to Stats Perform.

Antetokounmpo and Middleton combined for 68 points and 29 rebounds. Per Stats Perform, they are the first duo to combine for those numbers in a playoff game since Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in 2001.

Durant's 30 points and 11 rebounds were not enough for the Nets, who were again without injured superstar James Harden (hamstring).

 

76ers at Hawks

The top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers will visit the Atlanta Hawks in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semi-final matchup on Friday. The series is level at 1-1.

Giannis Antetokounmpo insisted "a win is a win" after the Milwaukee Bucks escaped with an 86-83 victory against the Brooklyn Nets, despite blowing a big advantage in Game 3.

The Bucks had their backs against the wall after falling into a 2-0 hole against the second-seeded Nets in the Eastern Conference semi-finals but responded on home court in Milwaukee.

Milwaukee surrendered a 21-point lead at home to the Nets before Jrue Holiday put the Bucks ahead for good with 11.4 seconds remaining on Thursday.

The Bucks were forced to dig deep during the closing stages, however two-time MVP Antetokounmpo did not dwell on the manner of the win as Milwaukee cut Brooklyn's lead to 2-1 in the NBA playoffs.

"At the end of the day, a win is a win," said Antetokounmpo, who posted 33 points and 14 rebounds.

"It doesn't matter if you win by 30. It doesn't matter if you win by one.

"You can go back home and celebrate the ‘W.' "

Khris Middleton top-scored with 35 points and 15 rebounds as Kevin Durant's buzzer-beating three-point attempt for the Nets bounced off the rim.

The Bucks are the only NBA team in the last 15 years to have two players (Antetokounmpo and Middleton) score 15-plus points in a quarter with no other team-mates posting a point (regular season or postseason), according to Stats Perform.

Antetokounmpo and Middleton combined for 68 points and 29 rebounds. Per Stats Perform, they are the first duo to combine for those numbers in a playoff game since Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant in 2001.

"We ran a lot of pick-and-roll, the first two games, in Brooklyn. I was able to get my spots, just wasn't making the shot, making the right pass or the right read," Middleton said.

"Tonight, I just tried to make the right read and make those shots. I can see what they are giving, just trying to take advantage of that."

On Milwaukee's defense, Holiday added: "I think part of it is playing desperate, knowing the situation, knowing what this game means to us and what it means to be home.

"And then the other part of it is the performance we had the first two games, showing that's not the type of defense we play. That was really out of character."

In theory, the Milwaukee Bucks appeared to be the biggest obstacle on the Brooklyn Nets' path to an NBA championship.

To stand a chance of winning a seven-game series against the NBA’s premier trio of team-mates – Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving – you've got to be able to score points, and a whole lot of them.

Despite a recurring run of injuries that often rendered their Big Three to a Big Two – or many times a lonely One – the Nets were a remarkable 27-2 when allowing 112 or fewer points in a game during a regular season which they finished as a de facto 1A to the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference.

The true magic number when it comes to facing Brooklyn, however, is 120, as the Nets were a pedestrian 8-13 when opponents scored above that mark. So, how many teams averaged 120 points per game this season?

Just one, as a matter of fact. That would be the Bucks.

And what team had the most games this season totalling 120 or more points? Again, the answer is Milwaukee, whose 39 games hitting the mark was six more than the next closest competitor – which, you guessed it, would be the Nets.

Well, after two games of the most anticipated series of this year's conference semifinals, Brooklyn's perceived greatest threat had offered no challenge whatsoever.

After comfortably winning Game 1, even with Harden playing a mere 43 seconds after aggravating a previous hamstring injury, the Nets unequivocally justified their status as the favourites to claim the Larry O'Brien Trophy with a 125-86 Game 2 thrashing that came with Harden cheering on his fellow well-paid team-mates in street clothes.

In hindsight, those results were ones we maybe could have seen coming. Sure, the Bucks effortlessly disposed of the reigning East champion Miami Heat with a first-round sweep, but it came without their offense performing at its usually potent level.

Milwaukee shot just 32.7 per cent from three-point range for the series, well below their 38.9 per cent success rate for the season, and they had at least 15 turnovers in three of the wins. The Bucks advanced mostly on good defense, coupled with an unquestionably abysmal shooting performance from the Heat over the four games.

In the Brooklyn series, the Bucks haven't been able to hit water from a boat, going into Game 3, having shot a paltry 24.6 per cent from beyond the arc over the first two clashes.

The early stages of the series also exposed Milwaukee's greatest weakness during what was otherwise another splendid regular season under Mike Budenholzer – an inability to adequately defend the three. The Bucks permitted opponents to make 38.4 per cent of their trey attempts over the 72-game schedule, with only the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves yielding a higher percentage.

Against a locked-in team like the Nets, that can be – and has been – a recipe for disaster. The first team in league history to make 15 or more three-pointers in six straight games during a single postseason, Brooklyn have connected at an incredible 43 per cent rate from long distance so far in these playoffs, going into Thursday evening's third clash with the Bucks.

If the Nets could even come close to keeping that pace the rest of the way, that likely spells doom for the rest of the NBA. The three-point shot has been a strong indicator of success in this postseason, as teams have won at a 70 per cent clip (35-15) when recording a higher three-point percentage than their opponents and are 25-7 when hitting 15 or more triples in a game.

Moreover, teams that have shot better than 40 per cent from three-point range are 24-5 this postseason, and the five teams that lost each faced an opponent that also eclipsed the 40 per cent mark in that game.

So, assuming the Nets don't do the unthinkable and somehow lose this series, is it a fait accompli they'll represent the East in the Finals?

They did lose two of their three match-ups with the 76ers during the regular season, though it's hard to put much stock in those outcomes considering Brooklyn were without at least two of Durant, Harden and Irving in all of those games.

Philadelphia getting past the upstart Atlanta Hawks cannot be considered an absolute given either, but the Sixers will provide an interesting test provided they do get past their pesky second-round foes.

They have the lowest ratio of three-point attempts to total field-goal attempts of any of the eight remaining teams, not too surprising for an offense centred around MVP runner-up Joel Embiid and the perimeter-averse Ben Simmons. But while the Sixers generally aren't bombing away with the same frequency as those still left standing, it could be argued that outside shooting may be the single biggest factor in determining how far they ultimately go this summer.

Next to Embiid's ever-present fitness concerns, Seth Curry might just be the X-factor when it comes to determining whether the 76ers can end a 20-year Finals absence. When Curry is going well and Embiid is healthy, Philadelphia are awfully difficult to beat. And Steph's little brother is certainly doing just that right now, having averaged 24 points while shooting 61.9 per cent (13 of 19) from three-point range over his last three games.

The 76ers went 20-3 during the regular season when Curry made three or more three-pointers in a game, and they've hit the all-important 120-point mark in five of their seven playoff games thus far. If it comes to fruition, a Philly-Brooklyn match-up in the East Finals would surely be a treat.

As for the West, the Clippers could represent the most imposing roadblock to the Nets' first NBA title in franchise history – on paper, at least. No team shot above the coveted 40 per cent standard from three-point range more times during the regular season than Tyronn Lue's group, whose 42 such games were seven more than the team second on that list (again, the Nets). The Clippers also led the league in three-point percentage at 41.1 per cent.

There's no questioning the Clippers' talent and depth. Trust, however, is another matter. This is largely the same cast that famously blew a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets in last year’s West semifinals, and they couldn't hold on to a 13-point half-time advantage in losing Tuesday's series opener to a Utah team playing without starting point guard Mike Conley.

History isn't on the Clippers' side either, as they've never advanced past the conference semis in eight previous tries.

And what about the Jazz, for that matter? Utah may not possess the Nets' overall star power and haven't displayed the same level of recent dominance as their potential Finals foes, but they did lead the league in wins this season, are capable of shooting their way out of any deficit and haven't lost a game when Donovan Mitchell has taken the court since April.

That is only a seven-game winning streak since Mitchell missed over a month with a sprained ankle, but has there been a better postseason performer than Utah's All-Star guard over the last two years?

In 12 playoff games over that period, Mitchell has averaged 34.4 points on 50.6 per cent shooting, and a 45-point masterpiece against the Clippers on Tuesday was his fourth outing with at least 44 points during that stretch.

Of course, superlative individual efforts don't always coincide with championship glory. Just ask Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks.

The most anticipated series of the 2020-21 NBA playoffs has not delivered quite as expected thus far.

The Milwaukee Bucks, having swept the Miami Heat, were backed to provide stern opposition to the Brooklyn Nets' array of superstars.

And when James Harden went down 43 seconds into Game 1, the Bucks must have thought their luck was in.

Instead, they head back home on Wednesday looking to belatedly get on the board, having fallen 2-0 behind in dismal fashion.

The first meeting was at least close, but a 125-86 Game 2 defeat in Brooklyn made unwanted history.

With Harden on the sidelines, the Nets became the first team ever to win a playoff game by 35 or more points while having a former MVP on their roster but missing.

Home comforts alone surely cannot bridge the gap for Milwaukee after such a humbling...
 

PIVOTAL PERFORMERS

Khris Middleton – Milwaukee Bucks

Optimism around the Bucks centred on a trio of leading men. Only Giannis Antetokounmpo could realistically be compared to any one of the Nets' 'big three', but Middleton and Jrue Holiday each showed their worth against the Heat.

It has been a different story in this round.

After 20.4 points per game in the regular season and 21.5 in the Miami series, that mark has dropped to a mediocre 15.0 through two games on 30.2 per cent shooting.

Regardless of any improvement from Antetokounmpo, who is averaging a solid if unspectacular 26.0 points, the Bucks need the supporting cast to be better.

Blake Griffin – Brooklyn Nets

While the Bucks would have hoped for Middleton to offer more, Griffin is exceeding all expectations in Brooklyn. The six-time All-Star is rebuilding his career.

Griffin has started all seven playoff games this year, having seemingly initially been signed as a bench option, and he had 18 points and 14 rebounds in Game 1.

It appeared the versatile forward refound his mojo the moment he left the Detroit Pistons, though, ending a 25-game drought with a dunk on his debut – one of 18 across the remainder of the regular season.

Griffin has continued these show-stopping contributions into the playoffs, too, with seven more, including one particularly eye-catching effort over Antetokounmpo on Monday.
 

KEY BATTLE – Durant evading effective defense

Griffin was not the only Net to find joy against Antetokounmpo, with Durant too easily working room to shoot and punish the Bucks in typical fashion. His 61 points lead the series.

Antetokounmpo and Holiday – both previously named to the All-Defensive First Team – might have backed themselves to manage this three-headed monster. So far, they cannot get to grips with just the two.

For as much as the Bucks need more scoring, offense alone cannot beat a team as talented as Brooklyn. Milwaukee actually allowed marginally more points (114.2 per game) than the Nets (114.1) this season and must now find a way to slow them.
 

HEAD TO HEAD

Of course, very recent history is against the Bucks, even if they had a 2-1 regular-season record in this matchup. The omens are better at Fiserv Forum, where both of the 2020-21 wins came as the Bucks improved to 66-32 at home versus the Nets in the regular season and postseason combined.

Durant is 7-5 at Milwaukee, averaging 26.8 points per game – more than any Buck so far in this series.

Brooklyn Nets superstar Kevin Durant attempted to play down the team's obliteration of the Milwaukee Bucks, insisting "we just did what we were supposed to do".

Durant put on a show in the absence of fellow former MVP James Harden (hamstring) with 32 points in three quarters as the merciless Nets earned a commanding 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference semi-finals on Monday.

The second-seeded Nets – who defeated Milwaukee in three consecutive home games for the first time since 2006-09 – led by as much as 49 points in their most lopsided postseason victory in franchise history.

Brooklyn, eyeing a maiden championship, became the first team since the 1987 Los Angeles Lakers to score at least 115 points in each of their last six playoff games.

The Nets – who set a franchise postseason record with 21 three-pointers – became the first team in playoff history to have an MVP winner (Harden) miss the game and yet still win by 35-plus points, according to Stats Perform.

"I liked our attention to detail," Durant said afterwards. "We didn't get a lot of plays perfect, but we made second and third efforts.

"They didn't destroy us on offensive rebounds so that showed we were boxing out.

"For the most part, we just did what we were supposed to do at home. Now we have to see if this game can travel on the road for us, and we gotta stay locked in."

Game 3 will be in Milwaukee on Thursday and Durant added: "I feel like that's every team's mentality if you got home court.

"We know how important Game 3's are and we know that their crowd is going to be in it from the second we get on the floor for warm-ups and we know their guys they play better and more comfortable when they sleep in their own beds and got their same routines at home. So we got our work cut out for us but we're looking forward to it."

Kyrie Irving had 22 points of his own at home to the third-seeded Bucks in Brooklyn.

''I think we're capable of greatness every single night,'' Irving said.

On the offensive unselfishness of the Nets, Irving added: "That's how you play the game the right way. You know, we are very special individually but the selflessness which you're referring to is really what creates the difference.

"Defense is going to win us games down the stretch, but offensively playing the right way and trusting one another is — those little plays that make the difference towards the end of the game where we don't have to go for it all right then and there wherever the score is.

"So, like I said, this team, we've grown so much and we continue to do so. Obviously, we're missing James. You know, and we're just filling in the pieces for him."

Giannis Antetokounmpo is continuing to believe, despite the Milwaukee Bucks falling into a 2-0 hole following a demoralising defeat to the Brooklyn Nets in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals.

Antetokounmpo and the Bucks were no match for the star-studded and James Harden-less Nets, who showed no mercy in a devastating 125-86 victory in the NBA playoffs on Monday.

The third-seeded Bucks trailed by as much as 49 points in a forgettable game in Brooklyn, where two-time reigning MVP Antetokounmpo finished with 18 points on eight-for-15 shooting and 11 rebounds.

Antetokounmpo and the bruised Bucks will return to Milwaukee for Game 3 on Thursday, but their superstar remains upbeat in pursuit of the franchise's first championship since 1971.

"It's easy," Antetokounmpo replied when asked how he could prevent his team-mates from losing confidence. "That's what I do.

"I don't get too high, I don't get too low. After the Miami series, we were up 4-0, and coming to this series, I wasn't high.

"Now that we're down 2-0, I'm not low. I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing, keep trusting my work, keep trusting my team-mates, keep believing in the team, keep believing in the habits we've built all year, and hopefully in Game 3 we get a win."

The Bucks were easily beaten by the Miami Heat in the second round of last season's playoffs, while Milwaukee are yet to progress beyond the Eastern Conference semi-finals (2019, 2001, 1986, 1984, 1983) since 1973-74.

"It's an opportunity," Antetokounmpo said. "At the end of the day, we have to take care of business, and take it a game at a time. I do not want to hear we got to win two at home.

"We got to win one at home. We've got to win the first game. We've got to get Game 3 and try to give everything we can to get that one, and then Game 4 try to do the same thing. But we have to focus on Game 3 right now."

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks had no answers as Kevin Durant guided the Brooklyn Nets to a brutal 125-186 victory in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals.

Harden sat out due to hamstring tightness, but the star-studded Nets still made light work of the Bucks in Monday's blow-out win for a commanding 2-0 lead in the NBA playoffs.

Durant put on a show against two-time reigning MVP Antetokounmpo and the visiting Bucks, posting 32 points in three quarters while Kyrie Irving added 22 points.

The second-seeded Nets – who defeated Milwaukee in three consecutive home games for the first time since 2006-09 – led by as much as 49 points in their most lopsided postseason victory in franchise history.

Brooklyn, eyeing a maiden championship, became the first team since the 1987 Los Angeles Lakers to score at least 115 points in each of their last six playoff games.

The Nets – who set a franchise postseason record with 21 three-pointers – became the first team in playoff history to have an MVP winner (Harden) miss the game and yet still win by 35-plus points, according to Stats Perform.

Antetokounmpo had a double-double of 18 points and 11 rebounds for Milwaukee, but the Bucks superstar was far from efficient.

Milwaukee's Antetokounmpo was eight-for-15 shooting, while he missed all three of his attempts from beyond the arc and had three turnovers.

Khris Middleton finished with 17 points, however, he was seven-for-20 shooting from the field, having made only three of his eight three-pointers.

In the west, the Phoenix Suns opened their semi-final matchup with a 122-105 win at home to the Denver Nuggets.

Chris Paul (21 points and 11 assists) and Deandre Ayton (20 points and 10 rebounds) fuelled the second-seeded Suns, who saw all of their starters finish with double-digit points – Devin Booker (21), Mikal Bridges (23) and Jae Crowder (14).

The Suns took control in the second half, outscoring the third-ranked Nuggets 65-47 in Game 1.

MVP favourite and Nuggets star Nikola Jokic was limited to just 22 points on 10-for-23 shooting, nine rebounds and three assists on the road.

 

Clippers at Jazz

The Los Angeles Clippers and top-ranked Utah Jazz will open their Western Conference second-round series on Tuesday. In the east, the Philadelphia 76ers will be looking to bounce back in Game 2 at home to the Atlanta Hawks.

James Harden will sit out Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals between the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks due to hamstring tightness.

Nets superstar Harden hurt his hamstring during Saturday's 115-107 win over the Bucks in the NBA playoffs.

Harden lasted just 43 seconds after re-injuring the same hamstring which sidelined the former MVP for 21 of the final 23 regular-season games.

The second-seeded Nets will be without Harden for Monday's second showdown at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

"James Harden has been diagnosed with right hamstring tightness," the Nets said via Twitter on Sunday.

"He is listed as out for Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals vs. Milwaukee. Further updates will be issued as appropriate."

As the star-studded Nets gear up for Game 2 in pursuit of a maiden championship, head coach Steve Nash told reporters: "He [Harden] has high hopes and he wants to be back ASAP. Now, I think we want to protect James, too. We want to make sure he's right.

"This is playoff time. This is time to take some risks, but it has to be right to take those risks -- we're not going to take any old risk. So, we hope he's back.

"He believes he can be back. But, we've got to see what happens and only can time can tell how he responds."

In this season's playoffs, Harden has been averaging 23.2 points, a career-high 8.8 assists and 6.2 rebounds through six games.

He has also been boasting postseason career highs in field-goal percentage (55.6) and three-point percentage (47.5).

Kevin Durant says James Harden's fresh hamstring injury "sucks" as the Brooklyn Nets brace to lose their star guard for an extended period of time during the NBA playoffs.

Harden was forced out of Saturday's 115-107 Game 1 win over the Milwaukee Bucks after 43 seconds after re-injuring the same hamstring which kept him out of 21 games late in the regular season.

The 31-year-old former MVP was sent for scans on his right hamstring with the extent of the injury unclear at this stage, but Durant spoke like someone not expecting good news.

"It sucks. It sucks. I want him to be out there," Durant told the post-game news conference. "I know how much he cares. I know how much we wants to be in this moment. It sucks.

"I wish him a speedy recovery. We're going to keep him involved as much as possible. It's just a bad break."

The Nets rallied hard to bounce back from the early loss of Harden to overcome the Bucks, who had Giannis Antetokounmpo score 34 points.

Brooklyn's defense was a feature, applying pressure to force the Bucks to shoot at 20 per cent from beyond the arc, while Blake Griffin had 14 rebounds in a throwback game.

Offensively Durant and Irving starred with 29 and 25 points respectively, but the former admitted they had to overcome the emotional blow of Harden's injury.

"We try not to be too emotional out there but losing one of your leaders like that, the first play of the game, we had to re-group for a couple of minutes and figure out what was next," he said.

"The coaching staff did a great job of moving forward. Guys came in and tried to play extremely hard.

"We're going to be thinking about James. I'll definitely call him when I leave him. I hate that it had to happen right now."

Durant refused to look too far ahead about the prospect of a tough Conference semi-final series against the Bucks without Harden.

"I'm not even thinking like that," he said. "I'm taking it a day at a time, a second at a time. Get ready for practise tomorrow.

"We're not really thinking that far. We'll try take it a game at a time and see what happens."

Game 2 between the Nets and Bucks is on Monday.

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