Nets’ playoffs begin in earnest with brutal Bucks challenge

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Congratulations to the Brooklyn Nets for eliminating the Boston Celtics in five. Now the playoffs begin. You know, the real playoffs. The portion that will determine Brooklyn’s legacy, nothing more or less.

Beating the storied Celtics used to mean a lot more than it did in this first-round series, which really felt more like a fistful of one-sided pickup games at the Y, give or take a thrown water bottle. On the subject of the Nets, Brad Stevens was right before the series when he said if he were the average NBA fan, “I have a hard time seeing them lose.”

Turns out Stevens’ players had a hard time seeing the Nets lose too.

But the other thing Stevens had said, the part about Brooklyn being “probably the most talented team that’s been assembled since I’ve been in the NBA”? That doesn’t start to get determined until Saturday’s Game 1 against the Milwaukee Bucks. The moment the Nets failed to land the No. 1 seed in the East was also the moment it became clear their championship worthiness wouldn’t be truly tested until they confronted the Bucks in Round 2 and, if lucky, the Sixers in Round 3.

First, the Bucks. Kevin Durant/James Harden/Kyrie Irving vs. Giannis Antetokounmpo/Khris Middleton/Jrue Holiday should make for a hell of a series. The Nets won the first regular-season matchup at home without Irving. The Bucks won the last two meetings in Milwaukee, over three days, while Brooklyn played without Harden.

Of course, there’s no point talking any longer about the Big 3’s lack of shared court time (only 13 games, including the postseason), because the three stars have played a combined 35 NBA seasons and have already figured out how to win a playoff series together.

At day’s end, the Nets are, in Irving’s words, “three of the best scorers to ever play the game, on one team.” In Game 5, the clincher, Harden delivered a triple-double line of 34 points, 10 assists, and 10 rebounds, while Irving and Durant combined for 49 points. In Game 4, the Nets beat the Celtics with Durant and Irving combining for 81 points, and with Harden dishing for 18 assists. Brooklyn can beat you in so many different ways, though never more beautifully than through the pass.

To beat Milwaukee, the Nets will need to move the ball as if the damn thing is on fire. Oh, and they’ll need to show a lot more fortitude than the Celtics required of them. Asked Tuesday night to identify the one thing needed to overtake the Bucks, Steve Nash cited mental toughness. Naturally, Harden was then asked to assess Brooklyn’s mental toughness. “I guess we’ll see,” he said. “But he’s right. It’s not going to come down to X’s and O’s and plays and schemes.”

For the Nets, it might come down to containing the hard-to-believe Antetokounmpo package of size, strength, explosiveness, and ballhandling skill. Nash talked about his breathless versatility on both ends of the floor. Durant described him as an improving offensive force — which is saying a mouthful about a two-time MVP — with more to his game away from the basket.

“We got our work cut out for us,” Durant said. “May the best team win.”

The Bucks are a much better team than the Celtics — it’s like comparing one of those high-powered high school basketball factories to a junior varsity team at a small suburban school. And if we’re allowed to make one last point about chemistry, it should be mentioned that Antetokounmpo and Middleton have played together since 2013.

The Bucks are also going to be fully rested, having finished their impressive sweep of the Miami Heat on Saturday. “This ain’t the bubble,” the Bucks tweeted after Game 4, a parting shot at the same Heat who had stunned them last year in the Orlando bubble. Milwaukee played like it needs to win the conference this year as much as Brooklyn does. More than Brooklyn does.

Not that the Nets should be thinking they’re in the first stage of some wide-open window of opportunity. They already gave away last year, and hey, nobody’s getting any younger. The Big 3 might never again be as healthy as they are right now. So despite the fact that Brooklyn, in Nash’s words, “is so far from being fully formed,” the coach emphasized the urgency of the moment. “We don’t want to give our players any outs or excuses,” he said.

They didn’t need any Tuesday night, when the Nets put Boston out of its misery while barely breaking a sweat. Their reward was a date with the Milwaukee Bucks, and a brutally difficult series that won’t feel like much of a reward at all.

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