Brooklyn Nets' Kevin Durant tries to drive past Milwaukee Bucks' P.J. Tucker during the second half of Game 4 of the NBA Eastern Conference basketball semifinals game Sunday, June 13, 2021, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

The Milwaukee Bucks have leveled the playing field. They’re tied at 2-2 in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Brooklyn Nets.

The Bucks got even Sunday in Game 4 behind the play of Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak finished with 34 points, 12 rebounds and three assists in Milwaukee’s 107-96 win that also featured crucial contributions from Khris Middleton (19 points, eight assists, four rebounds) and Jrue Holiday (14 points and nine assists).

The turning point of the game came midway through the second quarter when Kyrie Irving sprained his right ankle after making a layup and landing on Antetokounmpo. Irving didn’t return, and his X-rays were negative. The All-Star guard left Fiserv Forum on crutches wearing a walking boot.

The Nets were already without James Harden, who’s been sidelined since Game 1 with a hamstring injury, and they depended heavily on Kevin Durant, who had 28 points, 13 rebounds and five assists in the loss.

With Irving’s status uncertain for Game 5 on Tuesday, one has to wonder if the Bucks now have the upper hand in this series as it returns to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

Can Milwaukee beat the Nets?

“Yes,” former Bucks forward Tim Thomas said by phone Sunday. “Because of the Nets’ injuries and because they have a nice momentum now from winning two games at home.”

Milwaukee played better defensively in Game 4, swatting seven shots, making 10 steals and forcing the Nets into 17 turnovers.

“They’re more aggressive,” Thomas said of the Bucks. “They were too tentative. They got in rhythm being home. Game 5, it's a matter of will and desire.

“With them being healthy, they have a legit shot to beat the Nets in this series. No matter what happens with Harden and Kyrie, they’re not coming back at 100 percent. Now it's about playing at 60 percent, 70 percent because you’re not going to have guys playing the rest of the playoffs.

“It’s always tough around this time of the year. The injuries can set the team back and, as a player, your ability to execute and produce. Now is the time for KD to show his greatness.” 

Brooklyn’s Big Three will become only a Big One if Irving and Harden can’t play. Durant would have to shoulder the load offensively, but there’s one way to give him some help.

”I think if the Nets aren’t able to play small with their guards, then playing big might be the next option with KD controlling the pace of the game with DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin,” Thomas said. “I think that’s a realistic option for Brooklyn because they still have shooters around KD. With Blake and DeAndre, you’ll be able to go on the inside.”

Problem is, Jordan has not played since May 8. The 32-year-old center is in the second season of a four-year, $40 million contract that he signed at the same time as Irving and Durant in 2019.

Jordan has not sniffed a minute of playing time in the playoffs because Nets head coach Steve Nash has seemingly felt more comfortable with the rotation of Griffin and Nic Claxton at the five spot after LaMarcus Aldridge retired in April due to a heart condition.


Jan 18, 2021; Brooklyn, New York, USA; Milwaukee Bucks power forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) passes the ball while covered by Brooklyn Nets center DeAndre Jordan (6) and power forward Jeff Green (8) during the first quarter at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

“Yeah, it is a tough position for him to be in,” Nash said of Jordan before Game 1 against Milwaukee. “So we’ve asked him to do a job for his team even when he’s really not playing. We understand the difficulty of the situation. And that’s just the nature of our season and our roster and trying to plug some of those holes as we go along here.

“So DJ is in a tough spot a little bit with all the parameters that we just mentioned, but I don’t want him to feel any crazy outsized responsibility for the outcomes of these games. (If he plays) I just want him to have fun, be a great teammate, play his butt off and do what he can do to help the team.”

Jordan averaged 12.0 points and 15.2 rebounds during the 2017-18 season with the Los Angeles Clippers. The Nets just might need him to go back into the time machine and create offense for them.

“We know what DeAndre’s going to bring to the table,” Thomas said. “He’s a vet. He can give you what you’re missing. If you go small, you’ve got to be able to rebound the ball. I’d rather have KD coming off a pick-and-roll and the big that steps up is guarding Jordan for a dunk. And DeAndre will make free throws. That’s the next option for the Nets if Kyrie and James can’t go.”

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