But for all the drama that spilled on the floor Saturday night in an epic overtime Game 7 that saw the Milwaukee Bucks outlast the Brooklyn Nets 115-111, all the exhaustion that led to fatigue and respect-filled hugs afterward, this was the bottom line: The Bucks’ stars are healthy, and they’re in the conference finals.
Whatever the Bucks’ flaws — and they exist — this could end up being their golden chance at the golden trophy. It could be the best position they have been in since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson were playing there in the 1970s. Not even those Hall of Famers won a Game 7 on the road for the Bucks.
Some time could be spent discussing why it had to be so hard considering Brooklyn’s injuries, how Milwaukee let a few games slip through their fingers — and almost the deciding Game 7 itself. But that was all prologue, they survived the series.
“We kept our composure throughout the whole series,” said Giannis Antetokounmpo after scoring 40 points with 13 rebounds in 50 minutes that, by the end, had drained him of many of his normal powers.
“We were down 2-0, we were able to come back. We lost a game being up 15 [points in Game 5]. And against all odds in Game 7, we were able to come here, guard KD and get the win.”
Against all odds, maybe, but definitely by the tip of Durant’s shoe, which scraped the 3-point line when he made his last brilliant shot of his brilliant series that bought the Bucks yet another chance.
The way the Bucks came through in this series was personified by veteran center Brook Lopez. The Stanford-educated big man (though he once got suspended for skipping class) appeared to inexplicably forget the shot clock was low late in regulation and absent-mindedly cost the Bucks a vital possession, even though there had just been a timeout to get organized.
But in overtime, as Durant broke free to get to the rim, Lopez stayed with the play, making a vital block that helped hold Durant scoreless in overtime — ultimately the determining factor in securing the win.
Durant had a stat line that shouldn’t be lost to history: 48 points in 53 minutes, never leaving the floor. His performance in the series was among the finest for a losing player in league history. If there was an MVP awarded for the conference semifinals, Durant would’ve won it. And for that reason, this victory gets no asterisk next to the Bucks. They absolutely earned it and overcoming Durant’s efforts is what fuels their hope for the forthcoming rounds.
One guy who won’t take it for granted is Tucker, who couldn’t get past Durant’s Golden State Warriors teams when he was a member of the Houston Rockets. For a split second he thought he’d missed out again when Durant made the long, wild jumper over his arms that forced overtime.
“It’s painful. I’m hurting. That was a battle every single night,” said Tucker, whose back-and-forth with Durant spilled over to Durant’s family and friends courtside in a good-natured fashion. “To be able to finally get over the hump is pretty nice.”
The Bucks aren’t totally over the hump, of course. Technically, they’re just halfway there.
They slayed the dragon of last year, sending the Miami Heat packing in a confidence-building sweep. Brooklyn opened as big series and championship favorites and, it must be pointed out, was up on Milwaukee by 49 points in Game 2 even with James Harden on the sideline. Even Saturday, the sportsbooks installed the Nets as the slight favorite despite Kyrie Irving being out and Harden obviously still hampered.
The Bucks were 0-5 in Brooklyn this year and have been notorious for botching close playoff games. Jrue Holiday was 2-of-17 shooting late in the fourth quarter. Khris Middleton couldn’t buy a shot. The referees allowed vicious, physical play in this second-round finale — Blake Griffin was flat-out wrestling with Antetokounmpo at times, and the smaller Nets survived in the trenches, getting away with almost everything.
There’s a lot of big-time talent and big-time teams at home or on vacation. The Bucks are still here.
“There were a lot of ups and downs within the series. There were a lot of ups and downs in this game. Everybody fought extremely hard,” Antetokounmpo said. “I almost got emotional out there, we really wanted this.” You don’t always stride down the aisle to a championship coronation. Sometimes you beat the other guy by the toe of their Nikes.
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